When U.K. businesses were ordered to work from home on March 23, Damon Collins, founder of Joint in London, says his first reaction was: “What the crap do we do now?”
The creative shop, which works with the likes of Amazon Prime and Google, prides itself on a collaborative way of working, with everyone in the entire agency sitting round a 90-foot table. “Ideas could come from anywhere; you’d see something from another team and say, 'Yes that looks great,' and there was a real buzz and positivity,” he says.
So how does an agency recreate that in lockdown? We’re into the seventh month of working from home now, and with no end to the pandemic in sight, most U.S. ad agencies are resigned to it carrying on for the foreseeable future. In London, although some creative businesses started returning to the office in the summer, they have now been stopped in their tracks by an uptick in coronavirus.
But while all have embraced tech platforms like Zoom, Slack and Google hangouts, what’s often missing is the moments of serendipity that come from being together in a shared office space. Even Apple CEO Tim Cook of Apple, who has lauded the benefits of working from home, said in September that being in the office sparks creativity during things like impromptu meetings, while Publicis CEO Arthur Sadoun has made it clear that he doesn’t want to be a “Zoom company.”
The problem is particularly acute for creatives. “It’s the accidental inspirations that are missing,” says Sean Bryan, co-chief creative officer at McCann New York. “Every conversation requires a 30-minute meeting, but you don’t have those coincidental moments where you walk past someone’s desk and see something.”
For Lauren Ferreira, creative director at Droga5, spontaneous collaboration is “definitely one of those things I miss about office life. The electricity of the unexpected collisions of people and ideas.” And Simon Lloyd, who recently moved from Adam&Eve/DDB to become chief creative officer at Dentsu Mcgarrybowen, says he has missed the "pitch mentality" that comes from being in a buzzy office.
Brainstorms by bike
Agencies are trying out different ways to get creative juices flowing. Amsterdam agency We are Pi, for example, has “brainstorms by bike” and opens up the agency’s garden for hangouts. Droga5 in New York has guest speakers by video chat. There are also fun activities at many agencies; at L.A.-based the Woo Agency, an agency-wide scavenger hunt involved “challenges” like having to explain the premise of "Tiger King" to your parents on FaceTime.
Several agencies are trying more informal types of Zoom or Google hangouts, rather than having specific meetings about a brief. “We will sit on open Zoom calls or Slack for two or three hours,” says Victoria Buchanan, executive creative director at Tribal Worldwide. The agency has also experimented with Pinterest mood boards.
Joint London holds “kitchen hangouts,” created by random, at which people from every part of the agency are thrown together for a cup of virtual coffee. The meetings are mandatory but there’s no agenda, and no requirement to talk about work. “You can just talk about what’s going on in the world, and ideas can come out of that,” says Collins.
Sometimes it’s the option to bat around ideas that creatives miss most. So Havas London asks creatives to check their ideas “with a mate”—not necessarily from the agency—rather than “self-isolating” with their ideas, says Chief Creative Officer Mark Whelan.
Video tech platforms are also trying to help foster creativity: for example Microsoft is launching Together Mode, a way to put video calls into a virtual space like a meeting room or coffee bar to try to recreate an office atmosphere.
But one problem agencies cannot get around is that endless video calls can be exhausting. “My attention span is shot by the end of the day, and I just don’t want to be spending time on screens,” says Anomaly London Group Creative Director Lucy-Anne Ronayne.
Marc Nohr, Group CEO of Miroma Group, believes in the power of getting out of the house and walking, COVID regulations allowing. “Ironically, many people were complaining pre-lockdown that the office is not the most conducive place to coming up with ideas,” he says. “If you don’t want to use Zoom, you could work in the morning, then put your headphones on and go for walk and talk to someone. And I would urge creatives to try and meet each other, even if it’s just a socially distanced walk in the park or a chat on the bench. Even sitting on someone’s doorstep, I’ve had some great conversations.”
Then there is the idea of the collaborative workspace. Having relinquished its former office, Mother New York is planning to move to a new space in Gowanus next spring. In the meantime, all staff are working from home, but the agency plans to hire out a new space, possibly an empty restaurant or event space, says Chief Strategy Officer Charlie McKittrick. The idea is that people will be able to use it as a kind of “watercooler lab” to collaborate and talk—and even, as creatives love to do, pin ideas on the wall.
McKittrick has headed up a project titled “Mother in the Middle” that has looked at the implications of working from home on the creative process. He says remote working can affect the “honesty” and “vulnerability” that leads to creativity: “It’s really hard to be honest on Zoom, you just don’t pick up on emotional intelligence.”
Netflix and art direct
However, some creative chiefs point out that there have been benefits to working from home. For example, there's more time to think without the pressure of being visible in the office, says Yan Elliot, joint executive creative director at The&Partnership. "It can allow you to be calmer and more thoughtful rather than desperate to have a solution because time is ticking."
McCann’s Co-Chief Creative Officer Tom Murphy says that in general, coming up with the big ideas has not been a problem, but “crafting the ideas is a little harder, because that comes through collaboration—and it’s harder to replicate that.”
But, he adds, remote working and all company meetings can mean that more than ever, ideas can come from anywhere. It was an HR staffer, rather than a creative, who came up with the idea of honoring Ruth Bader Ginsburg’ via “Fearless Girl.” Murphy and Bryan say some of the best ideas have emerged from its morning leadership video call: for example the agency’s “I stay home for” campaign, early in the pandemic, starring the likes of Kevin Bacon.
And all that time spent at home can be useful too; people report being inspired by things their spouses or kids have said. McCann’s Bryan, for example, says his teenagers have educated him on TikTok, and Victoria Buchanan of Tribal Worldwide actually believes having young creatives at home binge-watching Netflix is actually having a positive effect.
"If you look at something like 'Killing Eve,' the details and finesse are really beautiful and people are learning from that," she says. ““All that access to content has really helped them to understand storytelling and art direction."