By Charlotte McEleny | digital editor

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March 15, 2022 | 9 min read

A closer relationship between client, agency and platforms is needed to find innovative, creative solutions to brands problems, according to South East Asia’s top creatives.

In a closed-door discussion, hosted by The Drum and Twitter, creative leadership from the top agencies in South East Asia chewed over the changing dynamic between clients and agencies, and what factors help creatives make their best work.

Overall, there was an agreement that Covid-19 had forged a step-change in how clients treat agencies in the APAC region, having more empathy for constraints and timelines while realizing brands need trusted partners in times where changes happen at breakneck speed.

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A closer connection between marketers, agencies and the technology platforms will ensure innovation and creativity go together.

Grant Baxter, head of Twitter Next, South East Asia, explains, “Covid-19 forced people to focus on what really matters in life - health and family. It created conditions in which brands were diminished in importance, relative to the needs of the individual. It also allowed for brands to reflect on the role that they should or shouldn’t play in people’s lives. It recalibrated where their focus should be and that is perhaps a good thing.”

A closer bond

This notion is shared by Dan Jacques, regional group creative director, McCann Worldgroup Singapore, who believes that the uncertainty forged a closer bond between client and agency.

“It was a real sink or swim moment for brands – where do they fit in this global situation that everyone's facing? I had this analogy of it being like wandering through a creepy dark forest. We all know that you'd rather have someone alongside you doing that for it to be less scary. I feel that's where agencies really stepped up and you're seeing the outcome of that,” he explains.

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The benefit of this closer bond is that agencies can question client briefs and get into the meat of the challenges brands are facing, rather than purely responding to comms executions and tactical work.

Valerie Lim, strategy director, TSLA, explains, “Clients today don't want to work with robots, they don't want to work with ‘yes men’ who just agree. I think they are looking to us to be engaged, they want to be involved and they want to be challenged positively. We see it as no longer being agencies working for clients, the relationship has shifted to agencies working together with clients.”

Laying down the narrative

The tactical and creative work is still essential and driving a large proportion of agency work but having an input in the strategic stages before this makes for better work overall, according to Dave Holland, creative director and head of design, BBH Singapore. A big theme from the discussion was the need for brands to address their narrative, purpose and find a way to be more authentic with the customers they are coveting.

“What I see constantly is the need to address narrative, and how that affects your positioning in the market in terms of what you stand for. The strategic partnership, walking alongside them, is about laying down the narrative and the cultural understanding, understanding why they do what they do before any work begins. This helps brands find their place or reaffirm their place in the cultural landscape or their category, then you can hand over to a creative team or a big idea person to uncover how to express that for a brand,” he adds.

The key part of the process for unlocking the cultural and category narratives is in gathering insights. Platforms like Twitter provide instant access to the pulse of people’s thoughts on anything, anywhere, but agencies provide the much-needed layer of curation to this always-on data world.

Emerging channels

Shawn Low, head of social media, Grey Group, says the agency uses anything from social listening, to focus groups and it depends on the client as to how that is pulled together. However, on a personal level, he’s seeing certain channels emerge for new, niche innovation topics like non-fungible tokens (NFTs), particularly as they emerge into the mainstream.

“On a personal level, insights for me are looking at things like desktop research, Reddit, Twitter, Google Alerts and I subscribe to a zillion different industry newsletters where I get interesting reports and hot off the press tech news. It really depends on what you're looking for, in which industry, to find the right channel that's connected to the right information.

“For example, NFTs and web3 are becoming massive. For some of these NFT drops, they open the Discord for one minute via an announcement on Twitter. You need to get on Twitter and have your alerts on, because if you don’t, you miss the opening into the discord, it's shut. It's interesting to see all these little tribes forming different niche groups in different communities,” he explains.

‘The big idea is the boss’

When it comes to tech and innovation, it is easy to get sidetracked and distracted by the shiny new thing, says Andrian Wiranata, executive creative director, Future Creative Network, Indonesia.

“The big idea is always the boss”, he says, “but most people get so interested with the technology and propose the use of technology to the client that isn’t right. The big idea is the most important part, which is in the beginning, and then it is about how technology can shape the idea to make it even better.”

This point is echoed by Merlee Jayme, chief creative officer at Dentsu International, who shares that previously the big idea and technology sat separately but have now come together in a more democratic way.

“In the past when you brainstormed, technology was separate. You would have an idea and then an option of whether you need technology for it. Today, the idea is king, or maybe I should say, queen, but the idea is still the boss. However, the idea can come from everywhere and anyone on the team,” she explains.

Closer connections

This democratization of creativity is something that interested Guan Hin Tay, creative director, BBDO Singapore, who says that this makes the creative process feel more human and organic.

“Creativity is being democratized by technology. Everyone is creative now, clients included. Creativity doesn't depend on the creative department, if you have a phone today, you are a photographer, you're a cinematographer, you're a content creator. I think with new technology, it opens new ways of creating stuff. So, in some sense, it's given us a lot of breathing space in terms of creating work and the process is very organic,” he adds.

As the world starts to find a new narrative of its own for life living with the pandemic, the impact that this will have on the creative work agencies do for brands will continue to adapt.

Andy Grant, executive creative director at TBWA Singapore, shares that there’s even more need to connect people and understand what’s driving people at a human level. He sees a future where the digital and virtual platforms connect with the physical experiences people have with brands on a greater level.

“As we come out of this, what we're finding for our clients is that there's a huge need to connect again. Experiential will be interesting in that space and how we figure out what the new version of that is. The blending of the two will be another exciting thing to figure out, how does virtual play a part in the real world? How can the two connect and how can we innovate in that space?” he asks.

As people play out an authentic version of their lives both online and offline, connecting the dots will be even more pertinent. A closer connection between marketers, agencies and the technology platforms will ensure innovation and creativity go together.

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