Matthew Miller
Jan 12, 2021

9 themes that will define creativity in APAC in 2021

2021 PREDICTIONS: We asked creative-agency types to tell us about the themes that will shape their approach to the coming months, as well as their creative output.

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

"Everyone expected 2020 to be challenging, but just...wow," says ShingSian Chew, group creative director at R/GA Singapore, expressing a sentiment that's no doubt shared by the entire creative industry. Indeed, the year sent an agency community that was already facing extreme pressures careening head-on into a maelstrom.   

"We all had to take a step back in 2020," agrees Kiefer McKenzie, associate creative director, Wunderman Thompson Hong Kong. "What made me proud though, was our industry’s ability to quickly adapt."

Now, hardened by 2020, creatives are ready for whatever 2021 brings. "Before last year, hearing a statement to the likes of 'By the way, do make sure the ideas are sensitive to a global pandemic that’s happening right now' would’ve turned me pale," Chew says. "Yet, statements of the same sentiment are commonplace in every briefing now, and need to be respected as we move forward to 2021."

As Måns Tesch
, chief strategy officer for Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa at Grey, observes, the turmoil has helped many "shed old norms that didn’t make sense in the first place" and forced a lot of companies to reflect on the state of their business, leading to "unprecedented demand" for strategic thinking. 

We asked a series of APAC creative-agency types to tell us about the themes they expect to define creative work in APAC this year, and to offer advice for their peers. We've distilled their responses into nine themes, ranging from how to deal with ongoing disruption to what consumers will resonate with and specific areas of growing opportunity.

Contributors

Top row, L-R:

  • ShingSian Chew, group creative director, R/GA Singapore 
  • Leslie Goh, chief operating officer, and Benson Toh, executive creative director, Tribal Worldwide Singapore

Bottom row, L-R:

  • Kiefer McKenzie, associate creative director, Wunderman Thompson Hong Kong
  • Måns Tesch
, chief strategy officer, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa, Grey
  • Firrdaus Yusoff, creative, Forsman & Bodenfors Singapore

1. The year of rolling with the punches

Chew:

How effective is the vaccine going to be? Is the new mutation strain going to cause a major setback? Is this as far as the recession goes? The only thing I’m certain about in 2021 is that nothing is certain. There isn’t much use trying to forecast anything this year. This year is going to be focused on how we roll with the punches and how we react when we get hit in the nose.

Agility is going to be a key attribute in this new normal. While ‘perfection’ is still important in our craft, I’d advise putting that on the backburner for now in order to be fast and timely. It’s our only means to deal with a year that could swing either way.

Lockdowns continue to persist in some countries and although I am hopeful for 2021, together with most brands, ‘cautiously optimistic’ is the only thing I can muster. I hope I’m wrong, but I believe face-to-face experiential events, extensive overseas shoots and large-scale outdoor campaigns are not going to feature much this year. It’s a challenging year as creatives are going to have to hear ‘No, you can’t’ often.

The good news is, as creatives, we are used to that. We’ve all had to, at some point, deal with restrictions in our line of work. So while everything has changed, nothing has changed. It still begs the same question—how can we use these limitations to our advantage? If we are able to harness that, the results are going to be some never-before-seen work done in a never-before-seen time. 

2. The brains behind the bravery 

McKenzie:

It’s all well and good delivering a foot-stomping inspirational speech about how brave work turns heads, but what happens when the clients are fearful for their own jobs? Forgive my cynicism, but this year is going to be tough on creatives. Even tougher than the last. The erratic events of 2020 have scarred us, and everyone is going to be looking for some stability. But that’s not to say you should stop being brave, you just need to get on the same page as your clients.

Make sure everything you do is grounded in insight and data. Facts don’t lie. While we all fancy ourselves reincarnations of Don Draper, rhetoric and boardroom theatre aren’t going to cut it this year. You’re going to need evidence and effectiveness to push it over the line.

3. The acceleration of telehealth

Goh and Toh:

Telemedicine platforms are becoming more important in complementing healthcare systems around the world, delivering medication right to your doorstep. Patients can now consult doctors, get diagnoses and prescriptions, and organise followup treatments

Care management for chronic diseases via telehealth is one key area, including using wearable health devices to monitor patients and gather data for diagnoses. While such platforms are mushrooming to meet the high demand, data privacy is a concern and needs to be coupled with advancements in data encryption technology built within the infrastructure to maintain exchanges of sensitive data.

Creatives need to make healthcare less terrifying, once again. A new age of healthcare requires new creative thinking to improve lives. How can we make the telehealth experience less stressful for customers? User experience can play a big role in adding comfort to the user journey.

4. The end of greenwashing

Tesch:

Contrary to common belief, a recent study showed that almost 80% of people in APAC are seriously concerned about global warming and its consequences. Armed with deeper knowledge and a rising concern, people will discard and see through brands making empty promises like being “net carbon neutral” by 2040. A challenge for brands will be to go from words to action, to look at the problem from a new perspective and be prepared to invest in changes to supply chain and production.

Thanks to decades of greenwashing and misleading information, people are quite confused about what actually matters to curb global warming. Brands have an opportunity to empower consumers by giving them a better clarity of the real consequences of their actions.

5. The need to get back to basics

Yusoff:

Consumer expectations on brands’ behavioral standards have increased. They are being watched and any message they release into the world needs to be backed by real action. Brands need to avoid being seen as frivolous when they should be stepping up to drive actual change With that said, there is always room for entertaining advertising. It’s just about recognising the right brief for it.

When faced with rapid changes to the world, I believe the best thing you can do is return to basics, and for brands that means their brand purpose. Focus on driving the tangible change you want to see, rather than on short-term ideas.

Whether we are mid or post-pandemic, my best advice is that you need to stay true to the core idea. Creatives sometimes get lost in the glitzy executions without putting enough thought or weight to the core idea. We should allow the current climate and context to shift the execution, and not get stuck on what doesn’t work in the current situation.

McKenzie:

Guess what? No one was buying responsibly sourced, lavender-scented soap during the pandemic. They bought disinfectant soap from the big names like Dettol and LifeBuoy. Why? Because they’re dependable, they’re consistent and they’re safe. Advertising is a powerful tool, but what it all boils down to is the product. Is it good? Is it safe? Does it do what it says on the tin? This year, the truth will matter. Consumers don’t like to be lied to at the best of times, but now, they’re not taking any prisoners.

Make sure any brief you take is built on a solid foundation of truth. We owe it to our clients and our consumers to get straight to the point. That means making sure there is a clear user benefit and a clear message. Anything else is just noise.

6. The craving for humanity 

Chew:

It’s been said that in 2020, we saw technology adoption that would’ve normally taken three years happen in six months. This—Zoom calls, social media and the other forms of technology we’re restricted to—is exactly what birthed a real craving for something a little more personal. Something human. And not just in the way technology is rolled out. I’d argue that because of the isolation we find ourselves in today, brands like Nike who dared to appear a little more human and take a stance became even more relatable.

Instead of just helping our clients navigate through this challenging situation, I’d challenge us to help brands serve as beacons that the world can look up to. How can we spread a message of hope? How can we make someone’s day better? How can we connect with that one consumer so he or she feels that at least someone out there gets it? With the human touch being in such scarce supply today, it’s our job—our duty even—to help brands deliver that humanity and make the future more human. 

Yusoff:

Great creative ideas need to resonate on a human level. Therefore, you need to be well informed of local differences to get your message across in the right way to create a true emotional connection. Today, each market in APAC is in very different stages of dealing with the pandemic. Restrictions on daily life vary widely between Japan and Singapore, for example. An outdoor execution for Singapore won’t translate as well in Tokyo. This can include everything from message tonality down to the selected media touchpoints - the challenge is to keep the core idea intact and as relevant as possible to the audience.

Collaboration is more important than ever. The best creative ideas are born in seamless collaboration with our clients. While us creatives specialize in ideas, they are the ones who know the local market situation and can help us adapt them accordingly.

7. The centrality of commerce

Tesch:

Many legacy brands are still treating e-commerce as an alien species, as a result virtual and instant brands are squeezing their share of voice and wallet. This is the year for marketing to seamlessly integrate with all forms of commerce.

Brands and agencies have to change their perspective from an old school, 'one step at a time' approach, to giving people the opportunity to engage in any layer of the brand experience at any time. If every phase of the customer journey is handled by different specialists, the result will be strong on theory and process and light on creativity. An engaging brand story needs to change shape along the journey, but the right combination of creativity and commerce needs to be present every step of the way.

Ultimately, creativity should solve business problems. It always pays off to dig deeper to make sure we have defined the real problem at hand, both from a brand and business perspective. Uncovering fresh insight into what’s holding us back at every step of the customer journey sets the scene for creative solutions that can evolve seamlessly from content to commerce.

8. The budgets that aren’t bouncing back

McKenzie:

At least, not immediately. If you can convince your client to forgo repaying salary cuts and instead pour money into a multimillion-dollar TVC, I assume you’re reading this while wearing a top hat and cape, because you’re clearly a magician. 2021 will be a year of recovery. That’s not to say there won’t be some absolutely fantastic work this year, I just think the priority will lie in getting brands back on track.

At the risk of sounding like a marriage counsellor, communication is key. Creatives have always been problem solvers at heart. Now is the time to ply our trade. Find out what real problems your clients are facing and find a creative solution. It sounds simple enough, but empathy will go a long way.

9. The tech driving better experiences

Goh and Toh:

Reliance on data networks has skyrocketed. The arrival of 5G network and edge computing will boost high-volume data-processing capabilities and reduce processing latency. Users’ digital experiences will be enhanced like never before, including livestreaming of HD content, use of multisensory digital formats like AR and VR, and data processing for machine learning, AI and cybersecurity analysis. These demanding tasks that require greater speed and higher bandwidth will face fewer limitations and produce better, more seamless experiences.

Creatives should experiment with richer content. While live music festivals and concerts may not be a good idea at this point, thanks to 5G the show can still go on safely. Consumers can now enjoy rich, futuristic experiences in the comfort of their own homes through ‘live’ interactive streams that are unaffected by lag and latency issues. This includes using multi-sensory formats like AR and VR.

Yusoff:

The pandemic has accelerated the acceptance of experimental digital ideas, for example those relying on AI, AR or VR. I expect this type of work will increase, as brands want to create a experience that is adapted to safe distancing rules and a home-based lifestyle. It’s an exciting time for creatives to play around with these executions.

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