Long Read - Creativity and sustainability, social responsibility and talent

Chris Pash
By Chris Pash | 27 April 2023
Credit: Alice Dietrich via Unsplash

AdNews asked creatives about the state of creativity in Australia, the big issues, including a reported shortage of talent, the battle between social responsibility and business and the march of the robots, AI and the chatbot. The following appeared in the latest magazine, an Adnews Agency of the year special. 

According to Deloitte Insights: “Individual talent is important to creativity, but there’s much more to it than that.

“Research shows that creativity is the result of multiple factors that must converge for it to spark. It’s an ‘ecological’ or “systems’ phenomenon that arises out of the interactions of individuals and teams, both with each other and with the environment around them.

“Creativity is not just something we have; it’s also something we do—both noun and verb.”

The marketing budget can be cut so many ways that every client has unique needs, and every project demands a tailored approach, according to Alex Derwin, chief creative officer at BMF, the AdNews Agency of the Year.

“For the most part clients want less transactional relationships,” he says. “They want to get more access to the people on the floor who generate the work, rather than only seeing the agency leaders, or managers. This means an increasingly specialised group of people who are more immersed in the client’s business.

“A common complaint from clients who are pitching their business is that their agency doesn’t listen to them. It’s strange that as experts in communication some agencies still only get half the exchange right. It’s important to project confidence, and back your ideas, but a little humility goes a long way.

“There seems to be more of a universal understanding of the need to invest in long-term brand health, but not at the expense of beating short-term sales targets. Finding this sweet spot where brand love and retail joy complement each other, rather than rubbing each other the wrong way, is where we can add real value to our client’s budgets.”

Derwin has never seen advertising as a battle between art and commerce.

“To me advertising is the art of persuasion, so it’s primarily a psychological game,” he says.

“It can be commerce, but it can also be used to create social awareness or to change a belief system. Creativity is our way of improving the chances of a positive outcome for a brand, product, service, or initiative by making a message impact emotionally - so artfulness, emotional truth, and leaps and bounds of imagination, are as important as they ever were in a brand’s armoury.”


Derwin says the industry had been spoiled with a near monopoly on creative talent.

"Now, there’s a bit of a supply issue," he says.

“It’s not that there aren’t plenty of talented people out there – there’s a strong case that there are more than ever - the issue is getting them to pick our industry over the many, many other ways they now have of monetising their creativity.

“I think we can, but we’ve got to do a rebranding job on ourselves.

“When advertising is at its best – when it’s at the bleeding edge of innovation, culture and creativity – it’s still one of the best ways to get paid. If we want to win the talent war, we need to double down in these areas. The bottom line is, agencies attracting the best talent not only future proofs our industry, but client’s business too.”

Ethical Dance

The industry is currently being drawn into something of an ethical dance, balancing commercial concerns with social responsibility

This isn’t confined to advertising. Shareholders and staff aren’t the only concerns for big corporations, which are now being pressured to consider the wider community as a key stakeholder group.

Derwin says that Grand Prix winners from Cannes in the last ten years show an industry fixated on socially conscious, purpose-driven work.

“Outside of the industry there’s a growing cynicism about the woke washing and virtue signalling of brands when real, important change is not at the core of a company’s belief system," he says.

“Brands do have the power to create meaningful social change for our communities and environmental change for our planet, but to do so it can’t just be a line item in a marketing budget.

“And even when positive social change is at the core of a company’s value system, does their marketing always need to talk about it? Aren’t we at the stage when not screwing our planet should go without saying?

“Message fatigue and cynicism has started to creep in when brands claim to be holier than thou. And when brands are opportunistic and use the climate crisis, or the black lives matter, or gender equality for their own benefit, it’s no wonder that people have trust issues with our industry.  

“Besides, purpose doesn’t need to be about saving the world. It’s just the answer to the question, why is your brand important or relevant?

"It helps define the actions that you take as a company, it keeps you consistent in your behaviours, builds trust, and creates a deeper affinity with your customers as a result.

"Your purpose could be something as simple as saving people money or keeping them entertained. If it requires ethical gymnastics to get you to a socially conscious purpose, maybe it’s time to reassess what matters to you as an organisation.“

Swedish creative Jerker Fagerström, in December 2022 joined Thinkerbell, a finalist in the AdNews Creative Agency of the Year, as managing partner Sydney.

“I'm generalising quite heavily, but I think that the change that we're seeing now is more because we are going into a period of low growth, which means that the change in the ask we're getting from a lot of clients is more and more switching from demand creation to demand conversion," he says. "It's a natural move.

“Then all agencies with a bit of integrity remind clients that the ones that do invest in demand creation, brand, they're going to be the better ones off when the tide turns, which it will.

“That's the change that we're seeing predominantly. There's a lot of talk about the metaverse and there's a lot of talk about AI but I haven't experienced a lot of those types of conversations or requests coming from clients.

“The same with ideas and creativity. You need to do it often more than once in order for something to really explode and really work hard for the service of that business.

“I am a little bit obsessed with this thing that we do, which is to apply creativity to a business problem. Not often do you really, really see what can happen when you do that but when you do, it's amazing. I've been lucky enough to have been part of a couple of projects in my 25 years to have really seen what creativity can do for a business when you apply it correctly and you make it sweat really hard in the service of that business and we can make it rain. It's the last competitive advantage in business that's legal, so that gets me up in the morning.

“I think that, as with everything in life, that there needs to be a purpose to it, because there's choice. I think that there needs to be a why behind every brand and behind every product and service, and then you just got to figure out the right one, the one that fits for the brand, that fits for the product, and then see how many consumers gravitate towards that why, because they share the same beliefs.”

Talent is a big issue.

Fagerström says talents today have such a vast plethora of opportunities.

"And rightly so; they should have that because this is the gold, this is the holy grail," he says.

“Compared to 25 years ago when I started out in this business, this was the place, this was that little piece of the pie where you got to celebrate creativity, where you got to focus on creativity, where you got to really, really leverage creativity as a business tool, and you were expected to do that.

“Now, you can do that in so many different places, not just our little industry. You can go anywhere and everywhere.

“The problem is one of talent, but I also think recruitment of talent is an issue for the industry. There's a lot of really, really talented people out there who don't even consider this industry a career for them, which means that we need to make ourselves visible to them at an early age.

“I'm again generalising, but there are so many problems with the fact that the majority of creative departments around the world are populated by white, mainly male guys. It sets a tone and it's not a good one.”

He says the business of creativity is a bit like an angel investor, or a venture capital firm, investing in 10 different startups because they know that nine are going to fail and then they have one unicorn left.

Richard Parker, executive planning director, Edge, says shrinking budgets are driving us to tap into culture to spread ideas organically – rather than exclusively via paid media – visible in the rise of brand collabs, meme culture and product placements, all fuelled by the countless hours people spend streaming TikTok.

“Creative agencies especially have often been characterised as trapped in an endless internal tug-of-war between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ – clients and suits pulling endlessly in one direction and creatives in another, with incentives horribly misaligned (awards vs sales; craft vs ROI)," he says.

“But this is clearly nonsense. Look outside of the world of advertising and creativity is almost always commercial. Whole books have been written about Walt Disney’s creativity, but the business that bears his name is inherently commercial. Fine artists have always used ateliers, where assistants, students, craftsmen churn out pieces aligned to the master’s creative  vision – maximising commercial value (and revenue).

"Kanye West (discredited though he is) turned his undoubted creative talent into a multi-million dollar empire that went way beyond music.

"And on the other hand, the best marketers (and internally at agencies the best suits and planners) are the ones that use creativity to solve business problems – not just through comms, but through creative manipulation of product, price, place AND promotion to drive commercial results.”

Adrian Elton, an independent creative and a former winner of the AdNews magazine Cover of the Year, says describes himself as as a microscopic independent agency that doesn’t work with the kind of multinationals that are understandably in the firing line for the damage that they inflict upon the planet.

"It's incredibly easy for me to support not supporting fossil fuel advertisers," he says.

“That in mind though, I still believe that in the same way that individuals can do things that enhance or diminish the world around them, the same can certainly be said for businesses, and all the more so for massive businesses with vast environmental footprints.

“As has been noted many times before, there is no Planet B - unless of course you're Sullen Husk - all barred up for life on the red planet! So getting serious about sustainability shouldn't be seen as the radical mania of the 'woke'.

"Those who brandished lumps of coal in Parliament were shown the door by a populace who overwhelmingly voted for leaders who weren’t burying their heads in the sand, or dedicated only to the imperatives of their slimy corporate sponsors.

“With all that in mind, there is certainly a role for advertising businesses to say ‘no’ to promoting products that destroy the fabric of our shared existence.

"And while it gets murky with the satellite businesses that intersect with that self-evidently ‘bad’ bunch, at least there should be no vacillation when it comes to saying 'no' to the worst of the worst. Hopefully the effect of finding fewer and fewer agencies, open to doing their bidding, will increasingly push them into a corner where they’re forced to do more than just greenwash the elephant in the room.

“As a one person agency (notwithstanding my frequent collaborations with the inimitable Grant Krupp), it's probably a little redundant for me to opine on the matter of agency culture, as any agency culture that I have is purely incidental. Although, that said, part of the reason that I'm a one person agency is probably no doubt directly attributable to the toxic agency cultures that I've encountered time and time again in the wild.

“This actually suggests that agency culture is profoundly important. At least if you want to retain self-respecting talent. After all, working anywhere with people who undermine you, or routinely make you question yourself, is incredibly corrosive. Even being in agencies that pit creative teams, one against the other, can easily introduce a destructive dynamic unless it's managed with aplomb.

“As creatives, we're typically sensitive souls, and although it's necessary to harden up to the point where you can take constructive feedback on board without falling apart, it should neither mean calcifying to the point that we zombify into arseholes as the only way of coping.”

COVID rattled a lot of people, according to Independent creative director Jess Wheeler.

"We stopped being hamsters in a wheel for a moment," he says.

"And when all the ‘fun’ parts of the job temporarily disappeared, for some businesses it might have exposed the flaws they were papering over.

“My view isn’t actually that different than it was prior. I’ve always thought you have to let people work the way that works for them. Especially in a creative business.

“Agencies are full of weird and wonderful characters who don’t all do their best work chained to a desk in an open plan office. The WFH vs in-office debate is redundant. It’s about flexible vs. inflexible. And if you really, really, truly, want your people in (and there’s plenty of reasons to do what we do in person) then it’s up to you to create an environment that people want to spend the majority of their lives in.”

Micah Walker, CCO and cofounder at Bear Meets Eagle On Fire, says he typically get approached one of three ways - one, we have a business that needs to be a brand; two, we have a brand with a new problem to solve or opportunity to unlock; or three, we have a recipe for some assets. The first two are great.

“How to create a winning commercial?" he says.

"There are so many factors. It also depends on your definition of ‘winning’. I think all great work has an interesting idea or clear message that is brought to life in a way that surprises, challenges, or moves you. No one will care about what you have to say if you haven’t earned their attention. The best work always lives up to this.

“Art versus commerce. Who’s winning? For humanity it’s always art. In advertising, I think it’s somewhat of a false equation.

“I think the biggest issue we face as an industry is the toll the traditional model takes on its best people. Genuine talent has more options than ever before and often those options are now more balanced or less complicated, and in some cases more lucrative. So, unless the industry genuinely embraces change to better serve its talent, we’ll lose them in droves.

“I’ve never worked anywhere great where culture wasn’t crucial. I’ve also never worked anywhere great where the culture wasn’t about creativity. Free beers and Friday BBQ’s will never be as rewarding or powerful as a shared commitment and pride in making better things.”

Andy Fergusson, Leo Burnett’s national executive creative director, says sustainability is being brought up far more frequently.

"And at Leo’s we’re doing our best to only align ourselves with businesses who are taking it seriously (not just greenwashing)," Fergusson says.

“Some of our long-term partners like Suncorp and Diageo are leading their categories in their sustainability efforts. And our stance on sustainability is becoming far more important to prospective talent.

“It’s no secret that agency culture has waned over the last couple of years. We all know how important face to face time is in creative companies. But at the same time, no one wants to sacrifice the new-found flexibility in how we work.

“At Leo’s, we are trying to be more purposeful in building our culture both when we’re WFH and when we’re in the office. For example, we found that WhatsApp groups have been really useful for more spontaneous sharing, chatting and joking around at home, particularly in the creative department. But we’re also putting more emphasis on creating reasons for people to come into the office; whether it’s inspirational talks, or ‘family’ lunches. Like every other agency, we’re just trying to find the balance.”

Chris Dodds, cofounder and managing director, growth & innovation at Icon Agency, says some clients want more for less and sign-offs are taking longer – indicators of a slowing economy.

“Conversely, Icon Agency’s integrated services are in demand as there are fewer management touch-points and time/cost efficiencies for projects.”

Art versus commerce. Who’s winning? “Art brings humanity and authenticity to commerce. Creativity touches the heart and mind. If you can win both, people will gravitate to a brand and remain loyal.”

Dodds says a key issue is navigating the need to maintain a flexible workplace, which is good for people; and the cultural needs of a workplace.

“Finding balance is important. Icon attracts talented people as they’re attracted to more purposeful work.

“Purpose is discovered by interrogating your ethical and moral beliefs, and then scaling to a collective belief system that informs the type of work your agency chooses to undertake. It’s complex but important work. It’s also fluid and will change over time. Our focus is on work that has a positive impact on people, communities and the planet.

Agency culture. How important is that?

“How important is air?”

Luke Simkins, group creative director, Mediabrands Content Studio, says clients are not immune to the pressures of economic downturn. This is currently driving concerns and will only increase as we start seeing things unfold.

“Specifically, I have noticed a move towards wanting work that drives fame and gets brands noticed as opposed to work that aligns with a cause. I think fame is #1, but there is also a huge appetite for relatable content at an affordable price, with a fast turnaround," he says.

“You can slow art down, you can even censor it, but you can never really beat it. Over time humans have proven that the appetite for art is ALWAYS there. Our industry borrows from and is inspired by art as opposed to creating it, so I find comfort in knowing it isn’t going anywhere.

“I believe one of the key issues will be how agencies and clients transition to a post-pandemic way of doing business. Productivity and efficiency become very important when the economy is squeezed.

“A boss once told me: ‘Hard work is really the only metric that matters.’ Agencies that find the sweet spot of inspiring and rewarding hard work, without employee burnout will win.”

Social responsibility?

“Come on, does anyone honestly think every agency in the world will collectively refuse to work on fossil fuel brands all at the same time? It’s not about refusing to work on fossil fuel clients; it’s about partnering with clients to find sustainable solutions, that look after our planet, align with the brand values and drive commercial outcomes.


“I’ve been around a while, and I think I’ve seen every form of culture. I’ve seen cultures that I’m envious of and ones that I’ll do anything to avoid. It’s our industry’s biggest asset when we get it right and I fear it is sometimes put too low on the priority list.”

Irene Joshy, Kantar Australia’s head of creative, identifies four essential elements to being creative and effective:

  • Creating for culture by knowing the pulse of the consumer and executing in a manner that is progressive and inclusive.
  • Creating for distinction by breaking formulas that have become advertising codes especially for established categories.
  • Creating identification and resonance through human stories that are inspiring and relatable in a tone and manner that is uplifting and not negative.
  • Creating for intuitive emotive connect – making people feel something for the brand. Sadvertising is detrimental to brand health.

“The dichotomy between art versus commerce is an artificial one – as in movies, so in commerce - a good story that is told with panache and authenticity wins on both counts,” says Joshy.

“It delivers artistic delight and brings in the dollars. Advertising that delivers impacts manages to do both successfully. Hence, at Kantar we look at advertising from the lenses of grabbing attention, selling the proposition and building the brand.

“Sustainable living  is not a choice, it is a necessity. Consumers expect brands to lead the charge on sustainable practices – environmental and social. Our Brand Z Sustainability Index has shown that brands that consumers perceive to be more sustainable grew total brand value by 31% in 2022 vs. 2021. This is higher than the average Top 100 most valuable brands which grew at 23%. So, there is merit even from a commercial perspective to deliver on sustainability.

“Any culture that does not evolve, stagnates. So, it is good to see the emergence of hybrid working culture, a lot more flexibility, the need for agility.

AI and the chatbot

Alex Derwin at BMF says the whole world of creativity and AI it’s fascinating, and scary.

“AI generated photography won an Australian art prize recently, there’s a Beatles song and a Nirvana song composed and ‘performed’ entirely by AI which sound (to the untrained ear) almost indistinguishable from the original artist," he says.

"What AI is doing for film and video game production is incredible and that’s trickling into what we do too.”

Micah Walker at Bear Meets Eagle On Fire, says predictions aren’t a strength of his.

"But I’d be willing to bet we’ll continue to see endless articles pondering if AI will be the end of creative departments and fewer questioning a financial model that might just make it inevitable," he says. 

Andy Fergusson at Leo Burnet, notes there is a thought experiment called Roko’s Basilisk, which proposes that once an AI becomes all-powerful in the future, it will retroactively punish anyone who was against it in the past.

"So with that in mind, I’m a huge fan of AI!" he says. 

“But in truth, I’m both optimistic and terrified about AI. In the short term I think it’s an incredible tool that will help us concept faster and reduce some of the more mundane and repetitive tasks.

"However, I think some people are underplaying its future potential for ‘creativity’. It may not be there yet, but the rate at which AI has evolved in just a few months is unbelievable, and I don’t really see a limit. We all need to embrace it and learn how to use it to our advantage, or be left behind.”

Chris Dodds at Icon Agency, says AI  will fundamentally change the what, how and why of work faster than almost anyone predicted.

"There are 100s of A.I.s hitting the market which heats up competition and accelerates change. And by change, I mean Gutenberg Press and the Digital Revolution on steroids kind of disruption," he says

Creative consultant Michael Skarbek, says that soon, the ad industry will look back and divide things into two eras: pre-AI and post-AI.

“I’m not saying AI will change everything overnight. The truth is, even the biggest innovations in history – electricity, cars, the internet – changed the world slowly. But AI will change things, a lot.

“In advertising, we’ll start using it incrementally. Art directors will start using it instead of Photoshop, to create mockups and moodboards. Film directors will use it for treatment references. Copywriters will use it to write eDMs, brochures and content pieces. Nothing ‘idea based’ just yet.

“But over time, AI will become the norm, and it won’t just be used for the smaller stuff. As it evolves, it will become as good as an employee – starting off as an intern, then with each new update, becoming a junior and so on, until it becomes smart enough to be really, really useful. For planners, it will provide useful research, and then offer conclusions that help planners find an insight. For creatives, while it might not be able to make an original creative leap (yet), it will get pretty good at rolling out ideas once they’ve been cracked.

“We’ll probably even see a new line on agency rate cards for AI ‘employees’ and the prompt writing that creates their work.

“Of course, as this saves us time, deadlines will then get shorter. And in doing so, a lot of mediocre work will be created. The less time we have, the more we’ll fall back on AI and the more familiar and unoriginal ideas become. In the short term at least, AI will create work based on previous work.”


Have something to say on this? Share your views in the comments section below. Or if you have a news story or tip-off, drop us a line at adnews@yaffa.com.au

Sign up to the AdNews newsletter, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for breaking stories and campaigns throughout the day.

comments powered by Disqus