Surekha Ragavan
Mar 10, 2021

How much damage has APAC creativity taken in the last year?

Large creative networks were forced to pivot towards performance-based solutions and commerce when the pandemic hit, but creativity has been compromised along the way.

TBWA's work for Nissan
TBWA's work for Nissan

The shockwaves of Covid flowed through the veins of brands and corporations in early 2020, and for many, pulling the plug on risky creative ideas for the rest of the year seemed a fine solution. Based on Campaign’s Agency Report Cards, creative heavyweights indicated that creativity itself took a backseat while performance-based solutions remained a driver.

The operative keyword here is ‘solutions’, something that came up often during leadership calls in preparation for the Report Cards. Sure, we can sit here and sing the powers of data-driven creativity, but at the heart of it, creativity wasn’t perceived as an end-all solution to brand performance and bottom lines in 2020.

Ogilvy, the region's top revenue-generating creative agency in 2020, channeled resources and manpower towards streamlining content capabilities, and upping martech and commerce offerings. And this, while it ensured that work would remain relevant and adaptable, compromised creativity, which was reflected in Ogilvy's grade in that aspect. Its best traditional creative film, a spot for TMB Bank (below), which married elements of fantasy and hope, seemed to float miles above other more serviceable campaigns.

WPP’s other heavyweight, Wunderman Thompson, seemed to echo Ogilvy’s move by nimbly pivoting towards commerce and tech. Our report reads:” For detractors who think the creative side of the business has been overshadowed by the technology side post-merger, this year’s submission and our subsequent conversations will do little to ease their concerns.”

Grey, one of the longest-standing creative outfits in the world and WPP’s best performing regional network at Cannes in 2019, also failed to live up to its creative prowess in 2020. Besides the high-profile ‘Your Plastic Diet’ campaign by Grey Malaysia for WWF, 2020 was inevitably defined by discussions that swirled around the Grey-AKQA merger, which appeared unflattering to Grey, and is more of an indication that tech- and solutions-based creativity were picked over traditional last year.

We also reported that work from Publicis’ creative businesses—except for BBH—appeared to be middling. Save for a few outstanding campaigns from Leo Burnett India and Saatchi & Saatchi Australia, the network chose to instead focus on process innovation and internal initiatives which led to pitch wins and a better integrated model—but alas, didn’t have an impact on creative output. The same can be said about DDB, whose creativity grade dipped from the lack of any jaw-dropping work, with the exception being DDB New Zealand, arguably the network’s strongest branch when it comes to ideation and execution. 

How, then, did Weiden+Kennedy (W+K), an agency that was awarded a solid A in its creative grade (one of only two A category grades we handed out), manage to do the opposite in 2020? Well, firstly, we sensed a heightened knack for tailoring creative output to specific media channels for maximum impact.

For example, the agency created sheep influencers that sold wool by livestreaming on Tmall, created a hit WeChat film for Ikea China, and put a virtual influencer in a physical Ikea store in Japan. And for anchor client Nike, W+K refused to let the pandemic deter brave ideas such as this one that alluded to racism in Japan, and this other one on esports that married slapstick humour and craft.

Did W+K’s stubbornness in sticking to its guns in creative and craft lead to a downfall in business? Overall, revenue fell, but the agency reported strong margins and says the second half of the year, especially in China, was strong. Perhaps this is a sign that brand marketing as a primary tactic has its merits, as outlier brands such as Airbnb have been brave enough to test.

Aside from W+K and BBH, TBWA too emerged as a strong creative player with strong work for Standard Chartered and Nissan. But here, the agency’s strength lies not so much in radical ideation, but rather, in a continued investment in culture. Culture, for the agency, is about “filling in the blanks” when data doesn’t provide all the answers; it acts as a je ne sais quoi that allows it to have a credible voice in the markets it operates in.

One thing we noticed across the board is that agencies were more restrained on awards budgets, justifiably so. But one cannot deny that awards continue to be a strong motivator for creative agencies, especially given the tendency for clients in this region to veer towards ‘safer’ and ‘less risky’ work. With few exceptions, awards remain an avenue for many agencies to unleash bolder ideas and are also a yardstick by which senior creatives are hired.

The Spikes Asia 2021 winning campaigns were proof that standard of craft was not compromised last year, but if we had to pick a pattern, it’s that ANZ and Thailand remain creative frontrunners in the region. Smaller outfits such as Wolf Bangkok, Special Group, and CHE Proximity dominated the Grand Prix awards and held their weight next to the titans.

Brave creative ideas as a tradeoff for performance-based solutions is an understandable notion for larger creative networks, but if prolonged, it could risk the industry being mechanised, a factory tour of staleness and covetousness.

This report is part of a series exploring trends we noted while preparing our latest Agency Report Cards feature, in which we rate and analyse 39 APAC agency networks. Each report card includes an overall grade plus a detailed analysis and scores for management; innovation; clients and business; creativity; and people and diversity. The report cards are available only to Campaign Asia-Pacific members. Become a member to get access to all 39 of the 2020 Agency Report Cards, plus many additional benefits. 


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