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Purpose In A Pandemic: How Australia’s Top Creative Agencies are Leading the Way

Trends and Insight 71 Add to collection

Australia's top creatives explain how they keep delivering for teams and clients during uncertain times

Purpose In A Pandemic: How Australia’s Top Creative Agencies are Leading the Way

Missing the everyday moments that define agency life and struck with a renewed sense of appreciation for solving uniquely human problems, top creative agency leaders have discovered valuable and unexpected ways to keep delivering for their people and clients. Campaign Brief finds out how.


CB: How are you pivoting your business to best accommodate your clients’ changing needs?

Mark Green, lead Accenture Interactive ANZ, Group CEO and co-founder of The Monkeys: There have been many changes to how we work with clients and in the type of work we are doing. We have been flat out adapting messaging and communications strategies to reflect the times and how people have changed their relationship with the products and services our clients deliver.

For BCF we encouraged Australians to camp in their backgrounds over the Anzac Day weekend, given travel limitations.

For Qantas we helped them pivot the Frequent Flyer programme to a Frequent Dreamer programme to show Australians all the alternative ways for them to earn points on the ground during lockdown. And for a bit of inspiration and Australian pride we shot the Australian Choir from their homes singing I Still Call Australia Home.

At the same time we have been working with clients and helping them do business online, improve e-commerce and stand up various sales initiatives like curbside pick-up.

It has been challenging and rewarding in equal measure. The team has pulled together incredibly well to deliver whilst we have all been working remotely. The results have been really positive and I think we will take many of the remote working learnings with us into the future.

Melinda Geertz, CEO of Leo Burnett Australia: A few years ago, we adopted creative sprints as our way of working. Thank God we had that collaborative, agile behaviour already hard-wired into our business. In a Covid-19 world, it’s just ramped up to a whole new level. We’re solving problems at a pace we’ve never seen before.

One of our pillar offerings is “content at the speed of culture”. It’s never been more relevant. Our clients have needed us to have our finger on the daily pulse of human behaviour and sentiment – and make sense of that for them instantly. I think this will be a bigger part of our “new normal”.

James McGrath, creative chairman of Clemenger BBDO Melbourne: Agility, collaboration and personal accountability have been supercharged by this period. For us it’s been driven largely by circumstantial clarity, for our clients it’s just the momentum they wanted applied to their problems.

In this time where we have become so aware of what it takes to live with ourselves, we all have this focus and absolute clarity on what is important to us as people, allowing us to apply our creativity with a refreshed inventiveness to solve uniquely human problems.

I know we all have a real sense of the human condition, which bodes well for brilliant creative inventiveness and outcomes.

Anthony Gregorio, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Australia: In lots of little ways but the biggest change is the speed at which we are operating. Clients and agencies are required to react quickly to an ever changing, 24/7 media fuelled environment. How consumers felt a month ago is different to how they might react to a message today. It makes the ability to react, and iterate quickly, crucial.

Ben Lilley, creative chairman of McCann Australia: McCann’s most important action has been to take no action when it came to our staff and their salaries. Our people have remained 100% employed on 100% of their salaries. This is a direct benefit of our new independence: now that we’re an independently owned and run Australian agency, we chose to cut our profits and every possible cost, except salaries, from our national operations to protect every job and wage during this crisis. I felt very strongly this was the only possible humane action to take as an employer, even at a time when a number of our clients were cutting their activity. But it also meant we’ve been able to easily meet every client need throughout the crisis and also generate a lot of proactive thinking and work that I hope will get made as we emerge from the crisis.

Ben Welsh, chief creative Officer of DDB Australia: The biggest pivot came from how we think about production. With traditional shoots off the table, we found ourselves having to adapt to how we approach creative briefs and lean into user-generated content, animation, stock photo libraries and existing content. Agencies and brands are being forced to create ads without glitter, as our Westpac client Jenny Melhuish recently put it, and we’ve certainly had to adjust to that. Fortunately at first, people were desperate for information. There was a lack of it from the government that caused confusion all around, so the work we could make was actually the work people wanted to hear.


CB: How have staff responded to the transition of working from home?

Mark Green (above): The team has been awesome. We set each week up with an all staff and finish the week off in the same manner. Throwing down a few fun ways to keep it interesting. Our latest initiative is a take on Cribs, where staff take us on an anonymous home journey and fellow staff have to guess whose house it is. We also share work in progress, client challenges and opportunities.

We really have found interesting ways to keep delivering everything possible under the circumstances. Production has continued with social distancing measures employed. Pitches have been undertaken including all the stages from chemistry session, strategy and creative presentations. Somehow the team keeps rising to the challenge.

We obviously miss seeing each other and sharing all the banter and interactions that make our industry so great but at the end of the day we have made it work for each other and our clients.

Melinda Geertz: I’m blown away by how remarkably well everyone has adjusted. Once we settled on the best platforms to use and got a few new processes in place, we found our feet. That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. We’re a very physical group of people. We like each other, and we like being together. We like the banter, debate and spontaneity that comes from close collaboration. So, to be honest with you, I had no idea how we would replicate that or find a new way. I guess it’s a case of behaviour change because you just have to. We didn’t have a choice.

We had introduced 100% flexibility earlier this year with Publicis Liberte. As awesome as it is in principle, it was challenging. This experience has taught all of us about trust, accountability and transparency. It’s proven to us that we can do this. The trust factor is high. It’s been a huge breakthrough. I’m envisioning that most of us will adopt hybrid behaviour in the future.

I think the hardest part for most of us has been the mental challenge of WFH. I can speak for myself: I’ve definitely had days when it’s felt overwhelming. Most of us are in make-shift work spaces; many of us are home schooling or looking after little ones at the same time; and some of us are alone or far from “home”. And, it feels like we’ve never worked harder. I’m in awe of how strong and resilient everyone has been – and how everyone has looked after each other.

James McGrath: It wasn’t easy initially. Everybody’s life is complicated in its own unique way and particularly for an industry like ours that thrives on social interaction, the immediate transition brought up a few challenges.

Clearly technology has played a huge role in connecting us and our processes.

Change is a constant, that’s a sensation that won’t be going away and frankly is one that a truly creatively charged culture is fuelled by.

We have in so many ways come together more by being apart. It’s all a little more personal.

Anthony Gregorio: Our staff have responded brilliantly. Definitely one of the benefits of the crisis has been the galvanising effect of everyone pulling in the same direction. Everyone is working hard for each other, which is amazing. I’d say a downside is the volume of calls now received and the impact that has on your ability to think.

Ben Lilley: A number of years ago I was lucky enough to see Robert Redford discuss his creative process at the Cannes Lions, where he described creativity as “finding the spaces between the obvious”. It’s so true. And a really nice way to look at our own creative process, where so often the biggest ideas strike in the spaces between the office briefings and meetings: when you bump into someone down the hall or making a coffee or having a chat at reception or grabbing a snack from the kitchen or just discussing a book or movie. These casual moments of creativity are the thing we’ve all missed out on by working from home. I think our work has been a bit poorer for it.

Ben Welsh: Covid-19 is the ultimate litmus test on an agency’s culture. It has been through this time that we have redefined and reaffirmed what DDB’s culture truly is: talented and nice. In some cases, people are feeling more connected than ever before and most have now adjusted to the new normal of working from home. That said, some have found it easier than others and we have to be acutely aware who could be suffering as a result of the crisis.

CB: Has a global lockdown given us the chance to really reflect on and unlock the power of creativity without borders?

Mark Green: Without doubt. Creativity thrives in tight corners and I think we have done everything possible to show the power of creativity during this time. Our clients have also recognised the power of what we do in connecting their products and services with people and equally how creativity makes the message resonate.

In many ways creativity has been the beacon of light through these dark times whether it is captured in a stunning series like The Last Dance, through a live social media gig from a band we love, or in a moment of Australian patriotism like the Qantas ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ video. Creativity has given us all hope.


Melinda Geertz (above): For sure. 'Creativity without borders' is part of our Leo Burnett operating system. For the past few years, we’ve encouraged our two offices to work as one – to use the full firepower of our national talent. But that’s easier said than done. The pressure to “be on the ground” in Sydney or Melbourne – in physical meetings – has often been an unintentional barrier. That is completely gone now. It’s been wonderful to see how seamless and connected we are when we’re all in one virtual space.

Anthony Gregorio: I think I’ve never been as busy as I have been over the past two months, so there’s not been a lot of time for reflection. There has definitely been a lot more collaboration across offices and countries. Whilst we have always moved briefs between Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney and Melbourne creative departments, there has been an increased level of collaboration between all departments across states. We’ve also worked more closely with our New Zealand team than usual. Again, it’s the spirit of helping each other out in difficult times that has been very heartening.

Ben Lilley: If I’d been able to enjoy creativity without home-schooling, I might have been able to unlock the power of creativity without borders. But instead I just became more efficient at uncorking a bottle at the end of each day! Our global creative chairman Rob Reilly’s mantra is 'Creativity Is The Only Way To Survive'. And this experience has definitely forced us to be creative and innovate how we work together. But I for one am looking forward to getting back to the office, as is every other McCann parent.

Ben Welsh: On April the 3rd, I received a text from a friend: “For heaven’s sake get the companies to stop the bullshit ‘we’re here for you’ ads! It makes me want to VOMIT”. He’s never been a patient man, so he was probably ahead of the curve on this, but he had a point. Many CMOs had adopted Les Binet’s approach that those who advertise during recessions come out on top, and very few had worked out what to say. The result was a reassuring message from pretty much everyone — even Tiffany. People started getting creative with logos to encourage distancing and cobbling together UGC mashups that were singularly undifferentiated. People expect ads to have a point. Preferably something worth hearing. But very few did.

DDB research since then has identified that companies who actually did something to help were far more successful than those who simply reassured us they were there for us.

CB: What insights has this unique experience provided that might inform different ways of working in the future?

Mark Green: Personally I have loved spending more time at home with the family. I have even been cooking. I think the lockdown has given us time to look after ourselves and to appreciate all the good things close to home such as the neighbours, extended family or friends. Working is absolutely doable from home, there is no doubt. Every challenge has been solved and will continue to be made easier through technology. Bob Easton, the Accenture ANZ Chairman said that we should all aim to turn the usual time spent commuting into personal wellness time. This is just one of many examples of great ideas shared during this period. Again, it has to be said, humans are ace.

Melinda Geertz: This has changed us. We did a proper staff survey a couple of weeks ago, and no one is begging for the past! Our people love that 'creativity without borders' is naturally happening; they’re excited that flexibility (place and time) can and will work – in many forms; and they see big benefits from all of us embracing more consistent and intentional processes and systems.

I think Covid-19 has unlocked different client behaviours, too, and we’ll be encouraging more of that in the future. Clients are moving faster, making decisions more quickly, sharing challenges more openly, and trusting in our partnership more completely.


James McGrath (above): An acute transparency has been needed, in the form of a precise and reductive language that has been developed in the face of Zoom/WebEx Microsoft Teams interfaces.

The respect and discipline of and for people’s time and equally the application of attention to different degrees has been revelatory and inspirational.

We have seen and experienced such diversity; we now have a greater appreciation of everyone’s true skills and abilities, so different from a classical and presumptive hierarchical sense.

We have been celebrating our people in unique ways. Missing those everyday moments that define our culture helped us introduce Clemenger Us, a program of activities that are based on the traditions that define us. That program has been so important because without it or without having a culture that necessitates that, you’re just left with the pragmatism of working out how to get things done.

This experience has amplified our cultural connection and it’s helped us find ways to work better together and share our work more effectively and efficiently.

People want things to be different, everyone has become open to change and once we begin returning to the office there’s going to be a lot of discussion around how we can take what was working, lose what wasn’t, and add in the good things that have worked for our people during this experience.

Most importantly, as creative agencies, this has made us realise that while the creative process is an always-on process, working from home has freed us all and enabled us to trust one another to think on our own terms in the time and space that works for them, and that’s a great thing that we need to protect as we return to work.


Anthony Gregorio (above): Definitely the need for everyone to be in the one place at the one time has been blown apart as the only way to get work completed and progressed efficiently. Whilst parts of the creative process will always require face-to-face collaboration to get the best result, it’s also clear a lot can be done remotely without affecting the quality of the work. Just prior to the Covid-19 lockdown we launched a flexible working program for all staff and the past two months have accelerated staff embracing that concept. I don’t think we will ever go back to working like we used to.


Ben Lilley (above): Working from home has reminded us of the importance of working face to face, not screen to screen. Our creative work and industry has already been dramatically disrupted by an over-obsession with technology, often at the expense of creativity. We’ve all missed the intimacy and energy that comes with creating together by being together. So I hope the greatest insight will be the importance of genuine human connections for creating genuinely human creative work.


Ben Welsh (above): The global lockdown has been an education. It’s helped us learn what we appreciated in our old working life and what could be better. Three things I’ve learned.

The power of We. A creative agency is a ragtag of colourful individuals, particularly the creative department, young and old, from all sorts of backgrounds with all sorts of passions. Out of that mix, there’s an intangible conversation – the bits between the meetings, the corridor chats, the observation at a urinal (about work) – where ideas get honed, shaped, perfected. This is much harder when we are apart.

It’s not where you work; it’s how you work. All our creative teams are loving managing their own time more effectively. No one is ever late for a Teams meeting and everyone finds the feedback more helpful. It turns out we are more responsible than everyone thinks.

We used to waste so much time! Going to clients, reviewing recordings, hanging around in meeting rooms. Now we have that time to work, and the work has got better. Though often we have less time, people are getting things right the first time.

CB: What do you most look forward to about returning to the office?

Mark Green: I’ve missed sitting opposite Fabio Buresti. I’ll give him a cuddle when I see him next.

Melinda Geertz: I miss the people. All the technology in the world doesn’t replace humans being together.

Anthony Gregorio: The human interaction; there is something about how we are as beings that means face to face communications will always be the ultimate means of expression. So whether it’s discussing a client problem, to helping a colleague out, to just the silly banter that gets you through the day, being around other like-minded people is always something I will crave in a work environment.

Ben Lilley: I’ll just be happy if I never see an ad shot via Zoom or set to sombre piano music ever again. And I’ll be extra happy if I never hear the word ‘unprecedented’ ever again!

Ben Welsh: At DDB, we say that ‘our business is to grow yours.’ There’s never been a better time to prove it. Brands that have invested will be better placed to grow, but they will need ideas that generate rapid growth. Creativity and retail don’t usually appear in the same sentence, but I’d argue that now is the time to prove that they can and should.

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Campaign Brief, Wed, 27 May 2020 01:26:55 GMT