COVID-19 has transformed creative campaigns, but is now the time to take more risks?

The coronavirus pandemic has forced a total rethink of creative comms campaigns. We examine how things have changed – and ask whether we now need a different, bolder approach.

Sign of the times: campaigns for (L-R) Ikea and snack brand Emily
Sign of the times: campaigns for (L-R) Ikea and snack brand Emily

Alongside much trepidation on the eve of the UK's coronavirus lockdown last month, there was confidence among some that creativity will come into its own as the new constraints become a catalyst for original thinking.

Memorably, W Communications ECD Mark Perkins told PRWeek at the time: "After lots of self-mockery about floating stuff down the Thames and stunts on Potters Fields, this could be our finest hour."

With the UK lockdown now in its fifth week, PRWeek speaks to some creative comms experts and asks what has changed in practice. While most agree that 'playing safe' and focusing on actions that help in the crisis has been the best approach so far, some say now is the time to be bolder and take risks.

It's clear that creative PR leaders have been walking a tightrope when it comes to the tone of campaigns. No one wants to misjudge the public mood with seemingly crass or bad-taste work.

FleishmanHillard Fishburn (FHF) executive creative director and partner Kev O’Sullivan compares it to playing a game of Operation - "teasing out all the right components without setting off a painful screech".

"At the best of times, creative comms campaigns, no matter how much data or solid insight we have, can fall short, miss the point or get it totally wrong. Throw in large parts of our audiences either risking or even losing their lives and the need for creative caution emerges - a paradox in itself, some may say.

"There’s a silliness to the millions of people sat at home TikToking, and there’s a severity to the [number] of people in hospital beds. And we’re left wondering, what’s the common ground for creative comms?"

O’Sullivan says FHF has "found strength in one plain fact: all people need a little help – be that very clear information or quality entertainment".

This has informed the agency's recent work – for example, collaborating with pharmaceutical company MSD to help translate the avalanche of health information into simple GIFs.

Similarly, FHF's 'Good moves' campaign for Fitbit (below) challenged people to keep active at home and to "celebrate everyone making good moves together", after data from the fitness app found user activity levels had fallen.

'Obvious creativity'

"The work may seem straightforward, or lacking that quirkiness associated with creative comms, but that’s what our clients’ audiences are responding to at the moment," O’Sullivan explains.

"Less ‘obvious’ creativity doesn’t make it less impactful, clever or skilful. In fact, sometimes that ‘obvious’ creativity drowns out the important truths a brand is delivering."

One agency boss even describes this as an era of 'anti-marketing', when inventive campaigns risk appearing out of touch with the sombre mood.

"We’re all operating from our hearts more than our heads and, as such, brands will need to respond similarly in order to meet consumers where they’re at," adds Freuds partner Lotte Jones. "Purpose campaigning has long been something we know is good business, but as a result of COVID, brands are starting to feel like it’s the right thing to do now."

The result is a slew of campaigns that, ostensibly at least, prioritise helping people over innovative creativity.

Hope&Glory creative director Gavin Lewis highlights the agency's work opening London's O2 Arena as a training centre for the nearby Nightingale Hospital. The agency's campaigns for Uber/Uber Eats and Airbnb aimed at helping frontline and NHS workers, plus a Royal Mint campaign about production of medical visors, have also focused on the COVID-19 fight.

For Lewis, the creative process has certainly changed since the lockdown. The fast pace of change and the need to devise and rework campaigns quickly has also forced comms professionals to think on their feet. Lewis compares it to cramming for a exam. "It's almost like that procrastination – the things that hold you back – has been dropped," he says.

Lewis stresses the importance of "show rather than tell" with good-cause campaigns. "And if you are going to tell, you need to do it in a way that is reflective of how we are all feeling," he adds.

"Brands that manage to walk that line, and with 'purpose', will reap the benefits in the long term. And in the short term, from a business point of view, they are probably going to reap benefits in the sense that they have worked out how agile they can be."


Does this mean the traditional concept of creative comms, with original thinking and daring ideas, is now redundant? There is probably a balance to be struck. Lewis explains that, increasingly, Hope&Glory has been looking at how to bring fun, creative elements into good-cause campaigns.

"We've spent a lot of time thinking about what we can do when the time is right and we're starting to get that work off the ground now. As lockdown has gone on, we've been able to inject a bit more fun and human-centric thinking to it."

He gives two examples: a campaign for mental-health charity CALM, in which celebrities entertain the public from a 'virtual' pub (the 'Lock In'); and Ikea sharing recipe guides for making the retailer's famous meatballs at home, which mirror the instructions for assembling flat-pack furniture – that campaign has generated 170 pieces of coverage to date.

The basic concept of the latter – encouraging people to recreate brands or experiences at home – has become popular during the lockdown.

The idea's origins are unclear, and almost certainly pre-date the coronavirus, but the principle has been adopted by brands such as Magnum ice cream, Pizza Pilgrims, and even the Getty Museum in California, which has issued a fun challenge for people to recreate famous artworks in their homes.

Rachel Pendered, MD at creative comms and content-creation specialist Media Zoo, outlines the appeal: "It's not enough just to have a message. People want meaningful content where they can learn something, where they can improve themselves.

"One thing many people have more of is time, so campaigns that are teaching people, helping improve their knowledge, enriching their lives in some ways, are particularly valuable, exciting and important right now. That's where we've seen a big uplift in demand."

'Think again'

"You have to think again with everything," adds Pendered, discussing creative campaigning in the time of COVID-19. "We're in uncharted territory, and we can be brave, but we can't be unthinking."

She says MediaZoo will soon launch a "brave" campaign for BrewDog and one for Tandem Bank focused on "doing good in a time of crisis", adding: "Heavy-sell messages, or anything that's too provocative, too funny [or] too shocking is completely inappropriate right now. But even the noble purpose of creating our goods and promoting them... even that can jar right now."

Nonetheless, Pendered also rejects the idea that creativity is less important at present. "We are tasked with being more creative than ever because the narrower the constraints the greater the creativity needs to be.

"We're not free to film as we would like, we're not free to go where we like, we're not free to say, in many respects, what we want to, because it's inappropriate.

"It's a bit like [having] a tiny budget versus when you've got a multimillion-pound budget. Obviously you have to be more creative when you have less – and we definitely have less right now."

She points to a recent Media Zoo campaign for home-learning provider Exemplar Education to give a maths programme free to families across the UK. This involved sending a 'studio in a box' – "fully-sanitised" recording equipment – to the client with guidance on how to use it remotely. The campaign led to an additional 9,000 sign-ups.

Some creative campaigns have been brave enough to incorporate the current restrictions into humourous campaigns, although Jones isn't entirely convinced.

She says: "Snack brand Emily ran a very cute outdoor execution from a creativity perspective [pictured, below], but I wonder how this will genuinely affect it, its sales or reputation. The realness of the perspective it takes feels fitting for the time. It’s an area where challenger brands can have some knowing fun."

Next stage

Minds are turning to the next phase of the lockdown, when restrictions will start to be eased and the world will start to return, gradually, to something like normality.

Ottilie Ratcliffe, associate creative at The Romans, predicts a hectic period ahead for creative PR. As is often the case, the brands that understand – and stick by – their values are likely to come up on top, whatever lies ahead.

"As we move into the peak of the virus, when countries in Europe are starting to look at letting their citizens out again, we’re in this strange new position of scrambling to get lockdown-specific campaigns out of the door before our captive audience escapes back into the real world," Ratcliffe (below) says.

"The winners of this phase of coronavirus are the brands who’ve created campaigns that bridge the gap, are designed to work for lockdown or let-out, [and] are still relevant no matter where we find ourselves in three weeks’ time.

"The companies that come out of this the best are the ones who’ve held onto their core values and established brand behaviour, but flexed it successfully for each phase of this shitshow we find ourselves in, rather than jumping on the bandwagon to get into roundup pieces about key workers.

"An audience stuck at home is even more ready to castigate brands for lack of authenticity than when they have places to be and people to see.”

Jones adds: "I think our collective humour is changing. The wry, intellectual snobbery that traded so well on places like Twitter is being replaced by humour that takes joy in the mundane, joy in kindness and becoming softer, more sentimental. I look forward to seeing how this shapes over time and perhaps become more true and gentle in how we encourage brands to behave.

"It doesn’t feel like our culture will spring back like an elastic band – as well as the literal trauma many will be grappling with, there will be a very long tail of impact on our mental health, on our values, on socially acceptable behaviour and even on how we connect to other people through conversation.

"For me, the most interesting part is not how we clumsily get through this wounding phase, it’s how we reform afterwards and how we steward businesses and brands to be much more in the flow of real life and connect to consumers on a different level."


Back to the present, could we already be in a new stage of campaigning as 'lockdown fatigue' sets in? Talker Tailor Trouble Maker co-founder Steve Strickland thinks so. He believes there's been a recent mindset change among consumers. 

"At the start of this there was almost a romance to [the lockdown]. It was about: 'I'm going to be at home, I'm going to do Joe Wicks everyday, I'm going to eat better, I'm going to listen to all these podcasts, I'm going to use this time that I'm forced to stay at home to focus entirely on myself.'

"I think that time is coming to an end. 'I've focused enough on myself, I now want to see some human being and I want to get out'."

While, sadly, socialising in person remains off the cards for now, the public are increasingly seeking entertainment and distraction, argues Strickland (below left, with Talker Tailor Trouble Maker co-founder Gary Wheeldon).

"The biggest creative challenge is how, as a brand, can you do your comms where it doesn't have to be all about coronavirus, and is it still going to cheer people up and be a source of joy? Not every brand can and should have an opinion of coronanvirus; if you don't want to involve yourself in [it] then don't, but then don't also believe you can't say anything.

"The brands that do take a bit of a risk and say 'We're going to do something a bit more joyful, we're going to do something outside of our comfort zone,' I think will be the brands that will be remembered. And, yes, I think some will be remembered for completely the wrong reasons – but there will be some that will be remembered for doing things fabulously and brilliantly."

Creativity in lockdown... keeping the creative fire burning

On a practical level, what impact has the shift to home-working had on the creative process? Is it possible to recreate the 'team dynamic' over Zoom?

Hope&Glory's Lewis (below) is sanguine: "It's been, surprisingly, much more manageable than I feared.

"I sense that, because we're all in the same unusual environment, we're allowing ourselves to think slightly differently; we're accessing different parts of our brain to come up with ideas," he adds.

The lack of usual "day-to-day" pressures such as commuting and external meetings has also given creatives more time to focus and develop ideas; to "go deeper" and obtain "proper insights".

Hope&Glory has been experimenting with new ways of working to encourage creative thinking – for example, splitting teams into pairs to work on a specific issue.

"We were looking at doing [that] before this all happened, but because of the virtual nature of working it seems to have sped it up, and made people more active. They've really got engaged with it."

Lewis says he may continue with virtual meetings even when office life returns.

Freuds' Jones is also fairly upbeat about the new working reality: "Like the rest of Freuds, we’ve become a lot closer throughout this period. We share more about our lives and support one another pastorally as well as professionally. This just means there’s more fluid communication and sharing is easier."

"WhatsApp is a saving grace," she adds. "Constant sharing of content we like or information we need. I think it was easy in the early stages to feel quite overwhelmed by the technology, but we’ve all surrendered and mastered in equal measure. It’s easy to resent being so contactable through the 85 different platforms we seem to deploy, but if you like each other then it’s like one long conversation."

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