Before we go back, let’s take some things with us

Graham North, head of brand camp, Goodby Silverstein & Partners
Graham North, head of brand camp, Goodby Silverstein & Partners

It’s easy to want to rid ourselves of every scrap of the pandemic’s memory. But is that what we really want?

So, the past 18 months have sucked. 

But amidst the work-life blurriness, Zoom fatigue and sweatpants-heavy laundry loads, there were some moments of genuine reflection that changed the way we worked.

At Goodby Silverstein & Partners, we run a brand strategy-meets-therapy sprint called Brand Camp. We distill six weeks of rigorous research into sharp (and usually uncomfortable) provocations, invite client leadership team into a room for two days and don’t leave until we’ve made some serious tradeoffs to define the brand’s future.

The lockdown hit our team like a ton of bricks. Overnight, we went from a completely analog process of whiteboards, post-its and “everyone put your cell phone in this bowl” to a 100% remote digital experience. We were still somehow expected to cultivate a safe space for brave conversations.

The pandemic became a game of forced adaptation. Like all change, it was painful in the beginning, but ultimately made the process and the work so much better.

Now, as the world reopens, we’re at a critical point. Which aspects of our forced adaptation should we hold onto? We’ve plucked a few keepers:

1. Say goodbye to “ta-da” moments

There’s nothing ad folks love more than the Don Draper curtain-reveal. Pitch theater is an adrenaline rush. The pregnant moment of silence after the reveal, scanning faces in anticipation and the ensuing high if they love it.

The problem is that it closes our minds to the most important skill we have as creatives: listening. When you can’t craft the perfect presentation, you resort to something simpler and more impactful: a conversation. You ask questions, become less precious, share Google Slides with open-edit permissions and let everyone dig in.

2. Fewer, more thoughtful meetings

This industry loves a good meeting. Better yet, a meeting to prepare for the big meeting. Or the huddle before that. Which is why most of our calendars look like this:

The epidemic of Zoom exhaustion has finally caught up with us, forcing a critical re-examination of a question we should have been asking for years: is this meeting really worth having?

Priya Parker, master facilitator and author of the The Art of Gathering, talks about “meeting makeovers:” basically Queer Eye-ing your meetings to be more intentional and less spinny.

At Brand Camp, we hacked through our meetings with a machete, killing statuses, standups and updates. We added in new meetings, such as “The World’s Greatest Post-Mortem,” where reflecting on a project is actually fun, or “Make Your Point,” where people present their work in one minute with no slides to prove that they do, in fact, have a point.

You don’t change the way you work overnight. You do it one meeting at a time, by killing those that don’t serve you or the work, and rewriting the rules of the one you choose to keep. 

3. Practice “Living Room Honesty”

Our constant struggle is to make people feel comfortable enough to share truths that make them uncomfortable. For consumers, that means digging into deeper motivations for a purchase, or sharing the less-than-perfect aspects of life that offer insights that actually matter.

For clients, that means spending less time on ROI and funnel metrics and more time unpacking real problems. That might mean facing up to lost relevance, or acknowledging the awkward truth that the CEO, CMO and CFO have completely different beliefs about why the brand exists.

Talking to people on Zoom while in their living room has the same effect as a car windshield on drivers in a traffic jam — a strange sense safety that emboldens us to say what we mean. We call that “Living Room Honesty.” That sense of being in your comfort zone (often, wearing your comfort pants) where you really let the truth fly. 

In our quest to make groundbreaking work, honesty is underrated. When we are once again in the muscle memory of cold boardrooms, let’s not forget Living Room Honesty.

Do we really want to return to normal?

It’s easy to look back and want to rid ourselves of every scrap of the pandemic’s memory. But is that what we really want?

Let’s be honest: the agency world wasn’t working that well before the pandemic. Flying across the country to see clients for an hour, staying up until midnight working on pitches. We can do better.

We adapted because we had to. Now we can adapt because we want to. So before we go back to normal, let’s look at the ways the pandemic forced us to change. We’re probably better for it.

Graham North is head of brand camp at Goodby Silverstein & Partners.


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