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A Creative Industrial Revolution?

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Continuous' senior creative copywriter Olivia Downing reflects on the pandemics influence in finally shaking up the working from home conversation

A Creative Industrial Revolution?

When she was a kid, Olivia Downing wanted to be a horse.

Nowadays, she is a senior creative copywriter at Continuous, the founder of the 900 member CIA: Chicks in Advertising and winner of the prestigious School of Thought competition in 2017 which took her to Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. As well as this, she is a guest lecturer in Creative Advertising (BA) at UCLAN and Leeds Art University, was voted one of The Drum’s 50 under 30 Outstanding Creative Women in the world and last year, judged the D&AD awards in the category Writing for Advertising.

N.B Olivia would like us to add that she would still like to be a horse, but just doesn't have the time.

In his blog article, ‘The Naked Truth’, Dave Trott outlines the story of how child labour laws were passed in the UK, back in the 18th century.

In short, they weren’t passed because of the years of compelling arguments, or even how horrendous the working conditions were. They were passed because of a rogue event, which revealed that the women in the mines, due to the sweltering conditions, were working topless: exposing their breasts to children on a daily basis.

The Victorian public were so horrified by this, that they immediately took both women and children out of the mines, and as a consequence, industry and working age in the UK was changed forever, and for the better. 

Fast forward to 2020. And while creative industries aren’t exactly Victorian coal mines, from a present day perspective, they may as well have been. 

Consistent late nights, unpaid overtime, missing family dinners and friend’s birthdays. Colleagues (usually women) working four-day weeks to care for children left out of key meetings. Dolly Parton’s ‘9-5’ is just a catchy song, a myth - never a lived reality.

Whispers of potential home working of course, had been floating around for years, like dandelion seeds. And in a similar way, they were just a wish: never materialising in a reality because of course, how could that possibly work?

Enter covid-19, stage left. And what was a background radiation worry about a blissfully far away disease, manifested as a nuclear explosion of a change in working. Frantic swipes of markers, mac books and pads plagued the agencies of the nation, as we all completed the mass exodus to our homes. But don’t worry, they said. We’ll be back in three weeks. 

Cue daily news briefings. Cue banging pots for the NHS. Cue 5k runs, banana breads and constantly being on mute. Cue three weeks to two years. Yet despite this global travesty, one thing became clear - working from home was working. Similar to the scene in the Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy peeps behind the curtain, we saw that the grand face of ‘GREAT WORK ONLY HAPPENS IN THE OFFICE’, was merely a facade, appropriately being run by an old, out-of-touch bloke with a creepy moustache.

And my point is this. Much like the child labour reform referenced above, we had our breakthrough moment. We saw our working lives change, because of an event no one could have foreseen. And for many, it improved their quality of life. So why then, do we still see so many articles lauding ‘back to the office’? What compels us to return to an environment which, by definition, does not foster creativity? To Dave’s point, it would be like us taking the children out of the mines, only to pop them back in again once they start getting a bit too full of themselves. My argument is that true flexible working, that is to say, working around what best works for creatives and not office leases, is the industrial revolution we should strive to progress, not simply forget about.

For aeons, creative greats have been proclaiming how creativity does not happen at a desk. We all know this. Sure, the actual craft happens at a desk, but the thoughts never come to you while you’re sat miserably in an office block, probably in uncomfy jeans (the very enemy of innovation in my book).

Flexibility in office working is also not a compromise: arguably, it enhances the creative work itself. I had the pleasure of judging D&AD Writing for Advertising in 2021, where the world was WFH, and can confirm that no creative neuro pathways were harmed. If anything, the creative work was better than in previous years. We all know creativity thrives with constraints. And as we are now in a position to choose them, a rigid place of working should not be one of them. 

Allowing people to work when and where suits them also builds respect and trust. There are few who abuse this, especially those truly dedicated to creating great work, because they want to do it for themselves, as well as for the company. Personally, there is something deliciously time efficient for me about being able to do things such as cleaning, or getting in a shop, while pondering a creative brief. I live alone, and having no one to help me with this, the ability to get all my chores done, while I’m cooking up creative campaigns, not only allows me to use mindless tasks as a creative thinking space, but it frees up my spare time massively. I wouldn’t dream about taking advantage of a company that allows me to do that.

Besides the day to day benefits, I believe there are also deeper, more poignant advantages to a flexible/remote approach that we must not forget. Historically, women have been stepped over in roles due to maternity leave, widening the gender pay gap. Marginalised groups, people with disabilities or chronic illness, have found it hard to operate in an office catering only to a certain demographic of people. I have arthritis, which makes commuting to the office (particularly in the winter) quite literally a painful process. Tempering that with being able to work at home comfortably when I want to, has been a huge relief. Also, consider how prevalent unpaid internships are in our field of work. Being able to work remotely is a great equaliser, and levels the playing field for those young creatives who can’t afford to commute to work for free. If your company truly believes that a diverse workforce creates better work, then a diverse approach to where and how is not a perk, it is a necessity.

This is not a glorification of total remote working. Some things, such as briefings and client meetings are undeniably better in the flesh, and I personally would not want to work at home all the time. But I refuse to believe the rhetoric that stipulates good creative only happens on the basis we all return to the office, and work as we did pre-pandemic. Put neatly, if you want a varied body of people to do their best work, you must allow them to work in a way that suits them best. That doesn’t mean ‘mandated’ days in the office, nor does it necessarily mean taking all our interactions into the metaverse. It means giving grown adults the responsibility to manage where and how they work, and trusting that they believe in the creative vision you set out for your company. 

I left my last workplace (a traditional ad agency) because after the pandemic, I know myself as a person, and as a creative mind much better than I did before. An archaic, presenteeism way of working is not conducive to the way my brain works best. I now work one day a week in the office at Continuous, and that day is jam-packed with meetings, creative workshops and briefings. I then distil that live interaction into the rest of my week working at home, where my mind and body feel calm and undistracted enough to do the work I thrive on and enjoy - including writing this article. Some may work better full-time in the office, others may enjoy always staying behind a screen. But until we are unanimously agreed on the choice to have choice, one thing is for certain. We will inevitably find ourselves back down the mines once more: bare breasts and all. 

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Continuous, Fri, 29 Apr 2022 07:50:52 GMT