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The creative curse of Zoom? How remote working is taking a toll on adland talent

The rapid rise in video conferencing is taking its toll on creatives, says branding expert Martin Lindstrom / Adobe Stock

The explosion of video meetings and unique demands of remote working are damaging both the wellbeing of adland’s talent and the creative process they hold dear. So says author and branding expert Martin Lindstrom, who tells Ian Burrell what we should do when creatives have no space to think and ideas are being strangled by corporate culture.

The creative process is being crushed by an avalanche of Zoom conference calls, calendar invites, PowerPoint presentations and remote working.

That’s the view of global brand expert Martin Lindstrom, who says the new culture of video conferencing and home working is sapping the energy of art directors and copywriters. He reports anecdotal evidence that creatives are seeking therapy for psychological problems experienced as a result of the shift in working conditions.

Talking to The Drum, Lindstrom laments the demise of the water cooler, an office beacon for interaction and creativity that all but disappeared in 2020 as agencies were forced to adapt their practices in the face for Covid-19. “There are no water cooler moments any more, those moments when you would connect with colleagues,” he says. “People are sitting behind a screen instead. Zoom came in with [Microsoft] Teams, BlueJeans and [Google] Hangouts and suddenly we were pinned on to a calendar with a fixed framework of when a meeting starts and ends.”

Zoom working has brought great advantages of global connectivity. It has enabled businesses to continue to function under lockdown and it promises vital cost savings from a working culture that is suddenly less dependent on expensive office real estate.

But while some have undoubtedly drawn inspiration from the unique trials of living in 2020, Lindstrom, a New York Times bestselling author and former BBDO executive, says the pandemic-driven working environment has put added pressure on creatives who must fulfil the specific brief of a client. “Creativity does not thrive in a linear environment,” he says of an unrelenting calendar of screen-based calls.

“Creativity is dying because of that. When I speak to creative folks around the world they say ‘I’m going to a psychologist now’. I never heard that before. They have had breakdowns. They have had identity crises and a lack of purpose because they are disconnected from other people in a linear environment which is everything they are not.”

Creative teams in advertising agencies depend on intimacy. “You need to have a creative rapport with someone. Creative teams very rarely generate ideas on their own, they bounce ideas off others because the other person will see the world from another point of view. If your entire view is from the same seat for nine months, while Covid-19 has migrated to Covid-21, you are not going to leave that seat because you are primed to stay indoors.”

Lindstrom, author of books including Brand Sense, Buyology, Brandwashed and Small Data, crosses the world as a management consultant and has advised brands including Lego, Disney and Amazon. He estimates that only a fifth of creative teams enjoy that “same wavelength” intuition, which means they can function effectively from anywhere. “These teams are very rare and stick together for a long time.” The rest, he says, must work to build a rapport; a much more challenging task over video link.

Pitching via Zoom is especially hard. Muted microphones and concealed body language make it hard to gauge reactions when presenting creative ideas. “When you deliver a great concept you are naked and vulnerable – if you present that on a Zoom call to a client and there’s silence… that feels like no, it means no connection.”

Visually interpreting the response of a client at a pitch is similarly difficult when they are just a small square on the screen. “In Zoom I see nothing and, if I try to extract conclusions, nine times out of 10 I would be wrong because I don’t see the context. I don’t know if someone is pretending to be present by nodding but actually multi-tasking.”

Zoom calls are often quite unnecessary but have become a badge of honour, he says. “People are thinking their deliverable is the number of Zoom meetings they attend. I have been in Zoom meetings where people are bragging that they can be in three Zoom meetings at the same time. We need to disconnect from that mindset.”

But opting out is not easy if you’ve been invited to a call and so has your boss.

In Lindstrom’s latest book, The Ministry of Common Sense, published 21 January, he mocks the new obligation to log in to every Zoom meeting. “You had to show up, if only to show [your boss] just how hard you work, how on top of things you are, and to remind her of your unmatched verbal, organisational, and technological command.”

But the structure of video conferencing hinders critical discussion and encourages safe contributions such as “I agree with Pete” and “I’m totally onboard, Marie”, he argues.

Home working has encouraged some companies to think that meetings can be scheduled “all day and into the late evening”, blurring traditional concepts of office hours. As a result, Lindstrom believes, creatives have no space to think and ideas are being strangled by corporate culture. “Bureaucracy and red tape is now piped straight into the creative’s bedroom. You can no longer separate private and work, and that is incredibly dangerous because you need to transition from one mindset to another – it helps you to defragment your brain.”

Despite his concerns, Lindstrom has strong views on how creatives can work efficiently under current restrictions.

Firstly, do fewer video calls. “Cut Zoom calls in half,” he suggests. “Instead of eight a day, do four and try and do them all in the morning and then people know you are offline after 1pm.”

Four years ago, Lindstrom ditched his mobile phone. He communicates mostly via email and The Drum interviewed him via his landline in Switzerland. “I gave up my phone to prove to myself I could do it and to make a statement to the world. I felt really alone in the beginning. I was questioning my sense of purpose, but I learned that my creativity levels were coming back.”

His recommendation is not to pursue such radical action – “I don’t think a lot of people can do it” – but to “establish a more natural relationship with the phone; do a detox at the weekend or leave it alone when you are with friends”.

Whether creatives are working from a kitchen, bedroom or loft, they should break their norm and step outdoors to somewhere green when trying to brainstorm ideas with colleagues. “Put on a mobile headset and walk in nature and talk to your colleague while she is walking as well.”

In the course of his consultancy work, Lindstrom says he has entered the homes of 3,000 consumers in 80 countries to test their buying patterns. Such behaviour is not suited to pandemics. In this instance, as in many others during this pandemic, technology is a lifesaver.

He advises creatives to reconnect with audiences by encouraging locked down consumers to show them around their homes using their mobile phones (the device he turned his back on). That way they will feel less cut off from those they need to connect with. “The best creative teams have an extraordinary degree of empathy and receive information in the same way the audience will receive it. That may explain why a lot of creatives are having problems – they have lost that pipeline of insight.”

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