Remote working and the accompanying host of collaboration tools it has required have been our lived experience during lockdown. But what has been the knock-on effect for creativity in marketing? From the wi-fi failing mid-Zoom call to having to deal with enormous file sizes, have stay-at-home creatives been tearing their hair out, or is this mitigated by the efficacy of new digital collaboration tools? Has embracing new technologies in the home office actually opened up a new world of once-unimaginable possibilities?
These were among the many questions at The Drum’s CT Fest panel, ‘Fuelling or hindering our creativity?’, in partnership with Dropbox. Lynn Lester, managing director of events at The Drum, talked to a stellar line-up including: Andy Wilson, director, media, Dropbox; Steve Brown, global marketing manager, Absolut Vodka; Lauren Pleydell-Pearce, executive creative director, PwC; Sara Tate, chief executive officer, TBWA; and John Scrivener, MD, Abbeycomp IT Solutions, in a conversation that took lessons from the pandemic and applied them to the future of hybrid working.
There was consensus that it was dangerous to speak with too much certainty about insights, as the context is changing so fast. PwC’s Pleydell-Pearce recalled: “I had two presentations with potential clients, one in December, and the next in February. I had a slide with some insights. By the time we got to February, none of the insights were the same, or made sense any more. We had to just redo it all over again.”
Absolut’s Brown concurred: “The mood is changing every day because people are really being quite self-reflective. This is a once in a century occasion where you were going to see a lot of change, whether that's personal or workwise.” This led to Scrivener’s observation that “a lot of the tech that our clients could not live without now was actually there already. Before, there was no real need to sort of dive in deep with these tools. But then in a remote working environment, they just became essential. These tools have got better, more refined and more useful” but were under-used previously.
Remote collaboration was actually a pre-pandemic trend, argued Dropbox’s Wilson: “In 2018/2019 we were seeing a number of agencies choosing to go completely remote. They were reforming their teams, learning new behaviors and ways of working. So when the pandemic happened, we had a playbook.” He described the enforced switch to remote as like “learning a new muscle”, noting how there is a greater systemic urge to “writing ideas down” rather than letting them exist solely in people’s heads and also paying tribute to how creative people “always find a way”.
Tate, like others, referred to how the pre-pandemic environment forced a binary way of working upon process - “either meeting together or on email” - that would not return at least while a hybrid working environment continued. She noted how comfortable her teams were with sharing Google Docs and Slides together virtually, in addition to the universally applauded Dropbox Miro virtual whiteboard tool and Paper, Dropbox’s collaborative editing tool. Like PwC, TBWA would not return to five days a week for the foreseeable future, if ever.
Pleydell-Pearce noted that this shift is not without cost. “There is the culture bit: I missed the banter across the desk, the little comments that, oh my god, I can't get this,” she reflected. “But, in the context of PwC there's 22,000 staff, or something in the UK. While I work with not all 22,000, I would never have actively gone looking for those many specialists if I had not had this past year’s experience. Silos have been broken down a lot more.
“PwC has just officially announced a fixed flexible working policy for everyone. You can structure your teams how you want to operate. And they've announced summer Fridays off. So they're looking at moments to reset and stop and force people to take a break.”
With Brown arguing there is no going back to the “arcane working practices” we have lived with since the 1950s, Wilson observed “in a sort of flexible, hybrid working model, the experience has to be equally good wherever you are. So, really having the right tech in place to support this is crucial.” Dropbox itself was going “virtual first”, but will have studios that staff will come in to. “These will be collaboration spaces solely. When we do focused work that's going to be in our home offices.”
Brown said that change was here to stay, like it or not, but agreed people had to look after their culture. “A call like this, it's very different from having a conversation,” he said. “Using the word binary again, one person talks and then the other. You can't really take in different social and emotional cues from what you're talking about. (But) change is here, and change is coming. Anyone who resorts to traditional ways of working is going to lose talent. But is also going to lose in culture.”
The joy of creativity is that it can be unlocked from very odd places. The panel concurred on the need for space and trust to let creativity flourish. And, Wilson concluded the conversation with a reminder that future differentiators will not be the free coffee or fruit you have in the office, but: “who's going to let me work closely with clients, how are we going to put in place tools so that I can do that? Those are the exciting spaces that new young creative talents are going to want to go work in.”