Close-Up: Is the recession good for creativity?

Does the lack of a big budget force agencies to think more creatively, Caroline Lovell asks.

When Winston Churchill said "We have no money. We shall have to think", he pretty much summed up the sentiments of adlanders during recessionary times.

This time around too, there seems to be a feeling in the air that creativity, at least in the first months of 2009, is yet to suffer from the effects of the recession and, in fact, might even be benefiting from it.

Ads from Cadbury Dairy Milk, Sony Bravia and even such unlikely candidates as T-Mobile and have already set the standard high for the rest of the year.

It's not an unknown phenomenon. In the recession of the early 90s, economic pressure seemed to give birth to a number of iconic campaigns, including Andrex's "sold on a pup", Stella Artois' "reassuringly expensive" and Tango's "you've been Tango'd".

Tom Morton, the executive planning director of TBWA\London, argues that a recession is good for creativity because brands are forced to adjust their advertising to respond to the changing patterns of how people are spending their money, rather than focusing purely on value and price.

"Advertising doesn't need to remind people that brands are cheap. The high street is doing that job already," he says.

Others say that the positive impact comes from necessity, as the industry has to come up with ideas not reliant on big production budgets and media spend.

One advocate of this view is Dave Trott, the creative director and founder of Chick Smith Trott, who says that advertising before the recession had become more about "expensive stunts" rather than ideas that sell products.

Just as in the early 90s, when Tango's "you've been Tango'd" tapped into the need for escapism from the day-to-day grind, T-Mobile's "dance" shows how some brands are reacting to the recession with a feelgood and low-budget style.

Lysa Hardy, the head of brand and communications at T-Mobile, says it would have been irresponsible to create an ad that was "flashy" or "over-produced" in the current climate.

As a result, a cut in budget meant Saatchi & Saatchi faced a "creative tension" to come up with an idea that was based on insight but did not break the bank.

Whether you believe that economic and fee pressure forces people to think about effectiveness and ideas with impact, or that it pushes creatives to do brave work that stands out, in the doom and gloom of a recession it is up to adland to ensure it is not only delivering strong, cost-effective creative to its clients, but also giving the public back some of that vital feel-good factor.

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CREATIVE DIRECTOR - Dave Trott, creative director and founder, Chick Smith Trott

"You've got to define creativity and style. The recession won't be good for stylists as they won't have as much money to spend, but it will be good for people who can genuinely think. If no-one has any money, the differential is brains.

"Now, it's all about money. If you spend more money on the execution, you don't have to worry about creativity. Hopefully, when we've not got any money, people will have to out-think each other, which by definition is creativity.

"Clients have got lazy. They spend millions on executions, which win awards but don't necessarily do anything. Clients will have to see a return for every £1 spent. The creative opportunity in a recession is more powerful."

PLANNING DIRECTOR - Tom Morton, executive planning director, TBWA\London

"During the last recession, Barclaycard saw that people were cutting back on the credit cards they held. So Rowan Atkinson's hapless secret agent persuaded people that Barclaycard was indispensable.

"People thought twice about paying a premium for brands, so Andrex campaigned to justify its value. Advertisers that are quick to adjust to the new climate will fare better.

"And there is always room for genuine innovations to open wallets that have closed to existing spending patterns. Don't forget that Renault Clio, Haagen-Dazs, People magazine and the iPod all launched in the depths of downturns."

CLIENT - Lysa Hardy, head of brand and communications, T-Mobile

"I think there is greater creative tension at these times. The mobile phone industry is renowned for having big budgets for advertising that can sometimes cause us to take the easy route. When you say you're not going to throw a lot of money at it, that forces a creative tension.

"I always believe, regardless of the economic times, advertising should be based on insight and always resonate.

"Our insight was that times are grim; it was January, the whole world was talking about the credit crunch, and people were a little fed up. Our objective was to put a smile on people's faces."

CREATIVE DIRECTOR - Trevor Robinson, founder and creative director, Quiet Storm

"People don't have enough money for big, high-profile branding campaigns. You're better off trying to make your personality stand out by doing something original and capturing the public's imagination with a strong idea, especially when people are being super-cautious.

"I don't think you can dictate a style; it's like saying do something original but do it in this style. It needs to be a good, appropriate idea that is also completely relevant to that brand.

"Obviously, a recession is about survival. In terms of looking for opportunities, you tend to think outside of the box when media and spend are not there. It's a time to be brave and vocal when others are saying 'don't look at me'."