It would be something of an understatement to say that the 2020s have started less than auspiciously. In fact, you'd have to go back a long lifetime to find a comparably tumultuous year to 2020. But the decade is still in its infancy, and the ugly duckling may still surprise us.
I say this for lots of different reasons but, to keep within my word count, I am going to restrict myself to three of the dozen or so leading candidates for optimism.
The first is dormancy. Unlike a chronic recession (or even a war) it is unlikely that we'll see protracted and prolonged processes of decline and obsolescence. These are what most sap the momentum and morale from an economy. The effects of the pandemic may prove shorter and sharper, in some cases accelerating decline that was inevitable anyway. There have been, and will be, casualties but we may be spared the economic permafrost caused, for example, by the 2008 financial crisis or the slump that followed Black Monday in the late 1980s. In a couple of years time, we may look back on 2020 more as a hibernation than an ice age, and the speed of recovery from dormant sectors may well surprise us. Travel, retail, hospitality and live events will reawaken, and they could do so with a roar.
The second is togetherness. It may sound naive to talk about common purpose being found in a common enemy, but this is often the effect adversity can have, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the pandemic has brought us closer together as communities and, perhaps, as a society. Whether the new sense of togetherness and common purpose is transient or lasting depends on many factors, but my instinct is that it has quite deep roots. I say this primarily because the pandemic has given us a far greater sense of our interconnectedness.
This interconnectedness runs at many levels. We have probably all felt it as family members. We'll have felt it across generations. We'll have felt it socially and culturally, too, perhaps most notably in Black Lives Matter and the drive towards a society where there is true racial equality. We'll have shown it in our recognition of those we depend on most, especially our NHS and key workers. We've seen it, too, in the resilience and determination of the commercial sector and so many of the brands we work for. How they have risen to the challenge, contributed to the wider community, kept their staff safe and their businesses firing. The social purpose of a brand has never been greater, and 2020 has turbo-charged the collective contribution that brands can and will make in the decade ahead.
The third is creativity. The noughties was a decade of outrageous innovation. It brought the industrialisation of the internet and, with it, the arrival of a host of moderately successful brands, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. A decade of disruption ensued.
If we're honest, the teenies have, to some extent, been a decade of consolidation. Yes, there have been launches, but there has also been a huge concentration of power into the hands of the noughties social giants or their 1990s forebears such as Google and Amazon. It is as if we have spent a decade mastering the dance steps they have taught us.
The 2020s may be different. The incumbents will remain the incumbents. But we may also see some entirely new dance forms emerge – more real than virtual, more experiential, more local, more idiomatic. And, if I'm allowed to be shamelessly parochial, this is where UK creativity may come into its own. Just as the end of the 1990s' downturn was marked by a flowering of British commercial creativity in the likes of Orange, First Direct, easyJet, Pret and Dyson, so the end of the pandemic may see a renaissance of British marketing innovation, enterprise and endeavour.
Let us hope so, and let us hear the twenties roar.
Charles Vallance is chairman and founding partner of VCCP