Let’s use this recession to break new creative ground

Gen Kobayashi
Gen Kobayashi

Hard times foster creativity

“The hard times are here.” These are the words that our chancellor, Rishi Sunak, used to mark the fact that the UK had officially entered a recession we all knew was coming. 

And it’s likely to be a recession like no other, with many commentators telling us that this is to be the worst recession for more than 300 years. This is going to hurt.

But I’m hoping history repeats itself and we see something more positive come from this period of time. Creativity. 

Looking back through history, creativity has often been a positive by-product of financial depression.

It stretches back to Hollywood’s “golden age of cinema” in 1929, which came directly after the Wall Street Crash. The advent of breakthrough innovation like “talking pictures” rose from the ashes of devastating financial ruin. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, there were between 60 and 80 million Americans that went to the movies at least once a week. 

Or, indeed, you can look closer to home during the 1970s, when the UK was going through a disastrous recession, punk music became the voice of disaffected youth. The Sex Pistols belted out God save the Queen, famously ripping through the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and, in turn, galvanising the voice of British youth. The chaotic creativity of punk offered young people a creative outlet to escape a bleak future. 

The recessions that followed the 1970s also gave birth to a renaissance in creativity coming out of the UK. The explosion of Acid House culture that had been bubbling up through the underground in the late 1980s as the UK was struggling with soaring inflation, mass unemployment and poll tax riots. Or the rebirth of British creative culture during the Great Recession in 2008, when we saw British creative output become the most sought-after exports, from Downton Abbey to Alexander McQueen to Grime. 

It’s not just artistic creativity that thrives in financially turbulent times, but commercial creativity, too. Some of the UK’s greatest ad campaigns strongly correlate with financially turbulent times. 

For example, it wasn’t just anarchic punk music that was making waves in the 70s, but advertising saw a boom too. Brands began taking a more oblique approach to selling. From CDP’s surreal work for Benson & Hedges to BMP’s Smash Martians taking cues from Ziggy Stardust, brands were unafraid to break new creative grounds themselves.

Fast-forward to the early 90s, the experimental and unapologetically noisy world of Acid House culture influenced the creativity we began seeing in our advertising – from HHCL’s “You know when you’ve been Tangoed” to Lowe’s “Peperami. It’s a bit of an animal”. Brands were unafraid to use creativity as a sucker punch to the face.

And while the world was in the grip of the Great Recession in 2008, we saw brands use advertising in clever new ways. From Saatchi’s work for T-Mobile popularising the “Flash mob” or VCCP’s joyous family of talking meerkats selling insurance. Brands were breaking new creative ground.

So here we are staring down the barrel of another recession. When times are hard, it can be tempting to batten down the creative hatches and take fewer risks. But I would call on us to use this time to break new creative ground. Again.

How?

Let’s continue to break new ground in experience. Covid injected new meaning into “community”, and for the first time the world was living a totally shared experience. The Travis Scott gig streamed into Fortnite capitalised on this new sense of “community” with a monumental gig that took place live inside the game at the height of lockdown. This was a brand offering more than 50 million people the opportunity to escape and experience an awe-inspiring event from the safety and comfort of their homes.

Let’s continue to break new ground in storytelling. Traditional methods of communications have been subverted this year. On one hand we’ve seen an abundance of Zoom-related advertising, we’ve also seen brands push new ways of telling stories. From Adam & Eve/DDB’s puppet dog selling AA breakdown cover to our own work for Born Free using in-home interviews and masterful animation from Aardman. Brands are finding new ways to tell stories.

Let’s continue to break new ground in social change. Covid forced brands to put their money where their mouths were and begin making a positive difference to society. From Leon feeding the NHS to our client Jägermeister giving back to the nightlife workforce with paid-for “virtual drop-ins” hosted by DJs and mixologists. Brands are finally translating belief into purposeful behaviour felt in the real world.

This recession is likely to be the worst any of us have lived through. But I remain optimistic that history will repeat itself and creativity will thrive, so long as we keep pushing ourselves and our clients to break new ground. 

Gen Kobayashi is chief strategy officer at Engine Creative.

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