The year ahead for creativity: turning the negative into a positive

Creativity thrives during difficult times when the answers aren’t obvious and the problems are complicated. Let’s put our arms around each other as we emerge blinking into a new world full of possibilities.

The year ahead for creativity: turning the negative into a positive

'We hope the drive for a greater diversity of ideas and talent will gain momentum'

Nicholas Hulley and Nadja Lossgott, executive creative directors, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

Since 2020 is the year we’ve all had to live through the ancient curse of “may you live in interesting times”, our most fervent wish for the year ahead is “may we live in boring as fuck times”. 

We could all do with the rest. 

2020 saw us all slide a little down [Abraham] Maslow’s pyramid to more fundamental needs: staying safe, staying healthy, and delighting in smaller things like finding loo roll in your corner shop. And apart from some wonderful highlights, creativity slid a little down the pyramid, too. 

So, if we are, hopefully, on the upswing in 2021 (and the murder hornets don’t make a dramatic last-minute entry) and we can give free rein to our creativity again, what do we hope for in the year ahead? 

If anything should endure from a traumatic, horrific year, we hope that the drive for a greater diversity of ideas and a greater diversity of talent – behind and in front of the camera – will gain momentum, so we can unleash fresh, invigorating and brilliant stories into culture. 

And in a year that brough so much sameness in ideas, we hope that creativity in the year ahead starts to wander off into new, surprising and different places. 

None more so than humour. Which we hope will have a resurgence. Riding on the wave of a post-hell upturn of gratitude, belief and renewed optimism. We have all been through a lot and we deserve to laugh about it.  

And, lastly, our hope for creativity in the year ahead is that all of us who do it can continue to do it. And we are blessed with the resilience and luck we each need.

'An agency is only as good as the people who walk through its doors every morning. So what happens when you don’t have any doors?'

Ant Nelson and Mike Sutherland, executive creative directors, Adam & Eve/DDB

Hmmm, this is a tough one. How do you begin to predict the year ahead when you look back at the year we’ve just had? If someone had said in January 2020 that a global pandemic would bring the entire world to a complete standstill in a matter of weeks, we would have laughed in their face (obviously, this was before social distancing was a “thing”). But the unthinkable happened. And everything changed. 

2020 was without doubt one of the toughest years our industry has ever experienced. Not just financially but also creatively. Shoots were cancelled. Projects were paused. Budgets were slashed. Opportunities dwindled.  

But it’s during tough times that sometimes our best creative work emerges. The late, great Paul Arden used to say: “Start with the negative and turn it into the positive.” That’s probably more pertinent now than it has ever been. 

If 2021 is to be a success, then we’ll need some of that Arden spirit. We’ll need to be more creative and more inventive than ever before. We’ll need to see the restrictions as opportunities, the can’t dos as can dos. But, hey, this is nothing new. Creativity has always been about finding a solution to a problem. 

And for creativity to flourish, it also needs people. As we all know, an agency is only as good as the people who walk through its doors every morning. So what happens when you don’t have any doors? How do we retain the “magic” of a place, without the place or the people inside it? 

It’s a tough challenge but one that every agency, big or small needs to crack. Remote working has put immense pressure on the industry and it’s the smart agencies that are devoting enormous amounts of time and energy to looking after their employees and bolstering the ties that bind. Our advice is to dig deep and use some of that brilliant creativity we reserve for our clients, for the good of ourselves. Our creativity depends on it. 

'I genuinely believe that all this hardship has led to better creativity'

Chaka Sobhani, chief creative officer, Leo Burnett

I'm not going to start with how unlike any other time this year has been. We’re still living it and will be for a long time to come.  

But I will side-step into 2021 with much optimism and hope. Because I do genuinely believe that all this hardship has led, and will continue to lead, to better creativity. To more fearlessness. To more of the unusual. The more reactive and proactive. And to more learning for us all. Which ain’t a bad way to go into a new year. 

There will undoubtedly be bumps in the road. Our clients are hurting and will be facing unknown challenges, as we will be ourselves. But that unpredictability has, and will, bring out the best in us. It already has. We’ve been made to pull our collective heads out of our arses and really look around at what’s going on. To how people are feeling, how they’re suffering, rejoicing, regrouping and finding a way through this madness. Because any notion of “they” has become “us”. And the work feels more relevant and honest for it.  

And that’s what I’m looking forward to. Fewer indulgent conversations about the things that don’t matter. And more focus on the things that do – making people feel something and being of use in some way. Whether that’s to inform, educate or entertain. Or in the form of a piece of film or truly getting out there and acting. It’s all to play for and dive in to.  

And I think we’ll be richer for it. As people, as professionals and as an industry. I realise all of this might sound a bit tub-thumpy and overly optimistic. But fuck it, when has there ever been a better time to believe in what we can do and how we can make our creativity really matter and be felt.

Illustration: Ben Jennings