On January 23rd, key opinion leaders from brands and agencies across Asia came together for the second The Cutting Edge of Creative, a Hong Kong and Singapore roundtable series in partnership with Shutterstock that considers the future of our industry.
While weighing the pros and cons of between being on trend or authentic, as well as discussing the future of the agency model, the participants tackled a particularly relevant topic: technology.
From grappling with how data insights can complement creativity to considering the role of AI in creative work, brand marketers in Asia are still sorting out the best ways to work with today’s innovations. That much became clear almost immediately.
Where do data, technology, and creativity intersect?
Michael Hardman, group chief marketing officer at Sarment, explained that the rise of data was “strip[ping] you down to a path with only things that resonate on an ROI level, when actually brand marketing is more than that.” With a nod to the way technology has changed the industry, he added, “In the past, you could be less restricted and go crazy with creativity because it wasn’t tracked.”
A growing sentiment amongst participants was that marketing and digital sales have overlapped. The dilemma now is determining which has more value: creative content that appeals to consumer emotion or one that leads to a quick click-through ending in a sale?
That sentiment was developed further on the agency side of the table. Shouvik Mukherjee, executive creative director at Golin Singapore, explained how art in his context must drive sales, and sales require measurable data. Meaning, art and data must coexist. “It’s not art for art’s sake,” he said. “It’s about conveying a message, and that [message] has to be rooted in some sort of an insight."
But if one shared belief rang loudest, it was that the human element still matters. Vishwash Gaur, deputy vice president of digital marketing at Prudential, chimed in on the topic, saying, “Humans are not replaceable. They’re creating the big ideas. Once the idea’s there, you use AI.”
Yvonne Januschka, director, APAC at Shutterstock, noted that Shutterstock has done just that, using AI to enhance the human experience. “Shutterstock is a technology company [first and foremost],” she said. “We use AI and computer vision to power some of our search tools, in particular composition search. If you’re a visual person, it enables you to move around the objects of the image to where you want things on the page and then it will show you image results that match that ideal.”
Trends are great, as long as they fit into your brand narrative
But what guides brand creativity in the first place? The roundtable participants spent considerable time reflecting on the merits of staying current with visual trends. For both brands and agencies, the consensus was that trends only help long-term branding if they are true to your brand.
“It’s great to be part of the visual zeitgeist,” Nicholas Cocks, assistant creative director at Hogarth & Ogilvy, declared, “but what you’re actually about is creating a memorable message…and making it resonate with someone.”
Aaron Yang, group brand manager of Pernod Ricard Singapore, put it more bluntly. “All these trend things…are more on a short-term plane. If you’re looking on a long-term basis, from a client perspective, if I don’t set the vision then all of this is just [a waste of energy],” he said. “Creative trends are the icing on the cake. But if you don’t bake the cake, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
But, as Zoe Hibbert, head of corporate relations at Visa, explained, “new trends inform how we reach new audiences.”
Shutterstock is trying to assist brands in this pursuit. The company’s recently released 2019 trend report pinpointed major and emerging movements in today’s visual and sonic landscape. The company has compiled search and download data, from an affinity for the 80s to kawaii and rococo visuals to AR and tempting typography, from its customers to help inspire marketers better identify the trends that will fit their brands in the year ahead.
Hybrid creatives and the future of agency-client relationships
More and more, the “cake” that Yang described is baked by a generation of specialists, a demand driven by clients. “Copy guys and art directors don’t speak the same language,” said Mukherjee.
But that does not mean that people with a multitude of skills don’t have a place in the industry. Quite the contrary, in fact. “You need someone with a broader view of the landscape,” Mukherjee added. Especially so as content creation becomes more dynamic, evolving to satisfying new channels.
Ultimately, as technology steers brands and agencies into uncharted territory, adaptability will be key to success. Jeanette Tan, vice president and head of communications in Asia for SAP, may have said it best: “At the end of it all, human discretion still underpins creativity.”
If humans still hold the wheel, the eternal question — how do we make our work stand out — breaks down to how and where the creative work is produced.
“There’s a lot of great work out there, so to win that engagement is becoming harder,” Hardman added. “I always think about how I’m going to do it. Do I use agencies or do it myself?”
Hardman wasn’t alone in pondering this question. For many brands, working with an agency often comes with risks. “Today, banking on [an agency] with a big name is probably not the right way forward,” noted Anindya Dasgupta, global CMO of Fonterra. That’s because creative ideas are increasingly coming from unexpected places, particularly from carefully recruited in-house talent, while agencies might not live and breathe your brand or understand your market like you do.
But others believe it is better to transform the agency-client model. Jessica Davey, chief marketing officer in APAC for McCann, thinks the model is already shifting. For one, the adoption of data-driven media buying has given agencies incredible creative freedom. “Programmatic is brilliant,” she said. “It frees up our creatives to actually be proper creative and strategic partners. It’s not replicating a creative formula.”
More than anything, Davey said, clients are using agencies to meet their business goals and agencies becoming brand partners in turn. “A good agency should be living and breathing your brand."