How lockdown has changed creative thinking

Zoë Taylor, Senior Comms Manager at Smarts London, talks to creatives around MSQ about how lockdown has changed their thinking and processes…

Fifteen weeks ago, our homes became our offices in the biggest collective change to working life we have ever known.

For most of us, there have been positives. No stress of train cancellations. No fighting for meeting rooms. No breathing through your mouth because a colleague is microwaving fish.

And of course – negatives, too. You can’t pop your head over your computer to ask a quick question. You can’t take your laptop to IT when it breaks down. You can’t go for a well-earned pint with your team at the end of a busy week.

With thousands of Google docs and even more Zoom meetings, we have all had to adjust to new ways of working. However, for creative minds, the changes have been even bigger. Without the buzz of a brainstorm, energy of an office, or outside world to explore for inspiration, they have had to adapt to new ways of thinking.

So, to find out how the creative thinkers at MSQ have evolved, I checked in with six of our colleagues. Over Zoom (yes, I apologised for putting yet another Zoom in their diary), we talked about how they think outside the box when confined to a box room; what new habits they have adopted; and where they have found creative light in these dark times.

“Isolation is the opposite of collaboration”

The first thing they agree on is that there is no substitute for getting people together in a room for a brainstorm. For The Gate Senior Creative, Rickie Marsden, “it has become much more about coming up with things in isolation and then getting each other to sense check them”. Andrew Campbell at Smarts agrees that “isolation is the opposite of collaboration.”

Without the possibility of grabbing a few co-workers and bouncing ideas around in a boardroom, the whole process becomes disjointed. And when you are trying to come up with an idea that is disruptive, insightful, or emotive, this can be problematic.

The Gate Senior Creative, John Osborne, says “the process feels less organic now. You self-edit when you put things down in an email. Advertising is about the emotional, not the rational, so when we email rather than have a chat, we are already losing the emotional and moving to the rational.”

Dan Plotkin, Creative Director at Stack, however, has found a silver lining: “Creatives thrive off positive energy. That is difficult to replicate over Zoom or Teams, but we’ve adapted – we’ve learned to be more self-sufficient and self-motivated.”

There are advantages to brainstorming solo. Exploring ideas and avenues without the sway of others can be freeing.

The Gate’s Beri Cheetham believes “this has forced us to think differently. That’s what makes creativity so important – if you’re not saying something different, you’re not saying anything at all.”

“Necessity becomes the mother of invention”

Several of those I spoke to mentioned that “lockdown ads” became mundane very quickly – montages of people working from home, families staying connected via video chat and so on.

However, there have been some incredible examples of creativity as a result of lockdown. For Dan, it was the campaign in which the NHS logo was reversed to say SHN (Stay Home Now). “Brilliant, simple, genius.”

Within MSQ, Beri says he and his team have definitely had ideas that wouldn’t have come about otherwise, such as a project for LA Brewery (a Suffolk-based drinks company) about a film that should have been impossible to make. “My sentiment being that necessity becomes the mother of invention”, he says.

And, in a powerful campaign, The Gate recently worked with the LGBT Foundation to raise awareness of the challenges that many in LGBT communities have experienced as a result of the pandemic. Senior Creative Rickie says, “I don’t think it would have ended up what it is unless we were in lockdown.”

Creativity manifests itself uniquely in each of us, so it is encouraging and inspiring to see how adversity has led to these ideas, which would not have happened otherwise. In fact, Beri believes: “Out of adversity, opportunity presents itself”.

In this case, the opportunity may be a much-needed shake-up to the industry.

“Lockdown has let the genie out of the bottle”

According to Dan, “In many ways, lockdown has let the genie out of the bottle… agencies will become more progressive about working from home – the industry more nimble, flexible and a better place to work as a result.”

For some creatives, like John, working from home has meant working on “the reserves” of inspiration he has collected mentally throughout his years of working. Others, such as Holmes & Marchants’ Global Creative Director Richard Stayte, miss the physicality of walking around somewhere, “but I have looked at things on my bookshelf that I hadn’t looked at in a long time, and browse my own archives”. Similarly, Dan really misses people-watching, but is reading (and re-reading) industry books.

Rickie has rekindled his love of watercolour painting and illustration as a creative outlet during the vacuum of the lockdown.

Andrew says there is still access to the things that inspire him, such as art, architecture and music.

For Andrew, one of the biggest challenges has been communication. However, this has pushed him and his team to develop their skills. “It’s made us much better at communicating clearly. Things that you can easily communicate through voice and gesture in person, you have to be a lot clearer about. That’s definitely been a good habit we’ll take away from this.”

Each of the creatives I spoke to said that they have found new habits which they will continue after lockdown restrictions end.

Beri and Dan have reaped the benefits of having more control over their own timetables. Creativity doesn’t always happen on cue, so being tied to a desk and having a regimented office routine are perhaps the worst possible ingredients for creative ideas. Dan believes, “the thought of going back to an environment where I’m desk-bound makes me fear for my ability to think creatively – more than lockdown ever did.”

As restrictions ease, and we think about returning to the office, there are certain ways of working that we shouldn’t return to. We have developed new ways of thinking and as a result, we are going to see a new generation of ideas that would otherwise never have been thought of.

That’s the benefit of thinking creatively. You’ll always see the inspiration that comes with adversity.