Leeann Leahy, CEO of the Portland, Maine agency Via, was watching TV early in the pandemic when she spotted three campaigns for three separate brands with the same premise. The main character in the commercial was “talking to the various versions of themselves—the sassy me, and conservative me, and fun me,” recalls Leahy, noting, “That’s a campaign that I've seen killed by creative directors 20 times in the history of my career because it's been done and it's sort of a go-to idea.”
For Leahy, this was confirmation of her suspicion: That remote work was resulting in a decline in the creative product. She’s not alone in that belief. Troy Ruhanen, CEO of TBWA\Worldwide, told Ad Age last month that remote work has “hurt creative” industry-wide over the past few years. “If you take the last bunch of festivals, no one talks about great work right now,” said Ruhanen. “I honestly do believe that’s been a consequence of what’s happened of being apart.”
“The work was not as good, period. There's no debating,” said Keith Cartwright, founder of independent shop Cartwright, who judged several panels for Cannes and D&AD throughout the pandemic.
Even now, nearly three years after the pandemic started, the effect is being felt. There were few standout commercials in the Super Bowl, traditionally the ad world’s largest showcase. Many of the spots were criticized for being jam-packed with celebrities and bereft of solid creative ideas.
Ad Age spoke to a dozen ad execs who agree that the quality of creative has declined over the past few years, but they said that remote work is only partly to blame. They fault factors including a shift in marketing and budgeting priorities, a project-based environment that erodes trust, a fragmented media landscape that buries good ideas, the pressure of shorter timelines to deliver work, and a general fatigue due to the pandemic and all of the above.
“The fact that we have to ask ourselves what is to blame for the decline in the quality of our industry’s work is a sign of two things,” said Susan Credle, the global chair and global chief creative officer at FCB. “First, that finally there is an acknowledgment that a lot of work out there is not as good as it should be. And second, that people are worried about that. Both give me hope.”