'You can start with the answer now': How COVID-19 has flipped creative process for the better

TBWA/Chiat/Day NY explains how creativity and production chaos is leading to faster solutions.

Before COVID-19 took hold, the creative process looked something like this: Get insights about how people are feeling; do a round of creative or two; put things into testing; see what wins; film it; put that into testing; finish it.

It’s a long process. Months-long. And, frankly, that just doesn’t work right now. 

"You can start with the answer," said TBWA/Chiat/Day NY CCO Chris Beresford-Hill. "You can go to the client with a finished ad, you can weave a text chain with a finished concept. 

"Sometimes, at our own detriment, we open things up to process. As a creative, sometimes we’ll take a brief and cast a huge net, and cast it again, and cast it again. We’re just in this interesting time where creative solutions are so valuable that you don’t need to prove out that you’ve got to one -- you just need to have one."

In the weeks that have passed in quarantine, TBWA has shifted and fused its creative and production process to serve clients who know they need to be more nimble and offer up content that has never been more culturally-relevant. The smart ones are aware that this new shelf life is minuscule -- what strikes a cord today will hit different next week -- because of the rapidly-changing nature of this pandemic.

Beresford-Hill, alongside his creative team as well as the production department headed up by John Doris, have been churning out work for brands in timeframes some never thought were possible. 

Live Nation’s new campaign, for example, was conceived, executed and put out within five days. 

The rigid frameworks which threaten creativity were abandoned, and instead, this entire idea and its planning played out in one email chain with Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino, his division heads and TBWA. They made decisions on copy, CTA, which marquees to use, what music they wanted -- everything. 

The same way of working was put in play for a new Snuggle campaign. TBWA worked with Aaron Stoller, a director with Biscuit Filmworks, who used his four young boys and wife as actors and rig crew for a 15-second spot that was ideated in no more than ten text messages. It perfectly captures the beautiful chaos of isolation right now for those who are lucky enough to be working from home.

"In the chaos of today, in terms of what we can make, anything is on the table," continued Beresford-Hill. "You can go to a client with a solution to a problem and it can be in any shape or form. You can have any conversation right now, and that’s an amazing thing."

Speaking to what he hopes sticks in the coronavirus aftermath, he said: "I hope that in some circumstances you can start with the answer. I do hope that you can see a problem and make a connection to a solution and not necessarily feel like you have to go through a long circular process. Be in a world where you can go to answers and not deep exploration everywhere, because it’s so satisfying to close loops."

Doris, who’s been wrangling a new way of working on the production side for the past month, said this world has forced his team to work closer with creative and close the gap between problem and solution. 

He said: "Creative and production have to be closer than ever, in lockstep right out of the gate. I like that [the pandemic has] put some onus on production to figure this out and I like the speed that we’re having to work out to assess creative. 

"We have to go back buttoned-up to the client and give them the confidence it can be made. So as a best practice now, every creative we present, we have the same very secure production approach, because everyone’s so skeptical right now you have to say ‘here’s how it’s exactly going to work.’ We almost have to make it completely buyable there and then to keep up the momentum. We’ve been having a lot of success with that and it’s been really refreshing for the producers to be part of that."

Doris added: "Deep down, as a producer, I’ve always liked making stuff happen when you’re not sure how it would happen. Those, ‘oh fuck, how do we do this?’ And I feel like everything is like that right now -- in a good way. The best production companies and directors will come through this stronger because of that attitude of finding solutions. 

"This is forcing everyone to be more creative and in the long run we will come out of it having benefited by being open to different solutions and maybe not be as precious as we were on certain things."

The agency’s vital pivot comes at a time when brands are bypassing production shops and asking influencers to create assets they’re not normally being asked to make. It’s fast. And clients are surprised by the quality and how much they’re saving (up to 50 percent, according to one study). 

Some experts say this is a taste of what we can expect from the new normal. Beresford-Hill, however, isn’t so convinced. 

The CCO said that, sure, if John Legend and Chrissy Teigen make a video for your brand, you’re going to be happy with it, and probably a little star-struck. "But I think when you get to micro-influencers, I can’t imagine that there would be any substitute for the craft and taste that an agency partner would bring. And by the same token, we would never not collaborate with filmmakers when that’s important to the film. 

"There’s definitely a lot of things we can do ourselves and then there’s also what a great director brings to the table -- that’s not a camera package, a crew and a catering truck -- that’s their ability to get performances, find the shots, find the humanity. It’s not about the equipment or scale, it’s about the craft."

Beresford-Hill said adland is an industry that loves to say creativity is the most important thing, "but I’m not sure every place really values it as much as they say."

He added: "For us, it’s true and has never been truer. Creative used to be the thing in the middle: you take brief, do the creative and you produce it. Now creativity isn’t the middle, it’s all parts, we have to be proactive, going to our clients and creating opportunities for them, then we must come up with executions, and finally, we have to creatively figure out a way to deliver something world class given the current circumstances. It’s a good time to be a creative company, if you really are one."

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