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Take risks but be strategic – 2021 D&AD Advertising and E-commerce judges share insights

How to build true authenticity, be bold enough to break the rules and employ solid strategy

The world of advertising and e-commerce faced a strange new landscape in the wake of Covid. Screens and online shopping became a necessity – as well as an escape. In response, advertisers refocused and sharpened their strategies, but the most stand-out work bravely experimented. This year’s set of Pencil-winners showed that breaking the rules is a risk that can pay off, and emphasised that clear strategy and craft is the foundation of great work.

In a discussion panel hosted by Brittaney Kiefer, formerly Creativity & Culture Editor of Campaign and now European Creative Editor at Adweek, this year’s advertising and e-commerce judges discussed the dangers of ‘bandwagoning’, the move towards a more long-form kind of digital content, and the practical steps brands need to take to make sure purpose-led work speaks with authenticity. 

Creative work thrives when there’s craft, strategy and intention behind it

“When we were judging the film entries at D&AD and going through all the work, this is one piece that everyone [felt] needs to be really shown,” said Senthil Kumar, Chief Creative Officer at Wunderman Thompson, who chose Diesel’s film Francesca as a bold commentary on culture, with clear dedication to craft. He described the piece as “an ode to freedom, a beautiful story and narrative crafted beautifully”. 

According to him, craft is a key feature shared by Pencil-winners, but process was also important, with this year’s awarded campaigns accompanied by clear strategy. Wieden + Kennedy Senior Art Director Anyaa Dev said that brands need to think carefully about the reasoning behind creative work. She said it’s essential to steer clear of ideas that are like “taking a flight to get a ham sandwich” – meaning creative expressions such as apps, QR codes or games that ask a lot of the consumer, without enough consideration about why, or what’s being offered in return. 

“In this era of very disposable content and disposable ideas … everyone’s like, how can we just react?” said Dev. “Thinking about how that links up to your core values, what its long term impact is, the craft behind it. There needs to be more intentionality and more thought behind that as well.”

Forget copy and paste – tailor ideas to the different platforms

Part of this strategic thought is considering how ideas will work across various platforms and mediums, and Michelle Jones, Head of Creative at the Greater London Authority (Mayor of London), believes the best ideas understand the different journeys of how someone consumes content.

“If they’re seeing it on their phone, or it’s a cinema experience, it’s doing a different thing,” she said. “I don’t like when things are copied and pasted — so it’s going to be used as the same video for social as for TV. There is a different consideration, and a different experience that should be considered.”

Embrace irreverent creativity – especially when it goes against everything in the rulebook

Hira Mohibullah, Executive Creative Director at BBDO Pakistan, chose Reddit’s five-second text-based Superb Owl ad as a standout piece – and an example of how creative work wins when it tears up the rulebook and throws it out the window. 

“There’s this sense of utter disregard for following the rules there and that’s what I loved about it,” she explained. “I remember when we were judging the work in the jury, somebody mentioned that this was a piece of work they wouldn’t have approved if it landed on their table … It’s rogue, it’s irreverent, just like the brand itself, and it just basically stumped everybody out there. We keep talking about advertising that’s out of the box, and this was just that."

Technology shouldn’t overshadow the idea, but instead integrate with it

AI, machine learning and deep fake technology have developed a reputation for their potentially negative and invasive use, but the Pencil-winning #StillSpeakingUp campaign – which brought murdered journalist Javier Valdez, famous for his reporting on drug cartels, back to life to continue his work – shows how cutting edge technology can be used creatively, and for cultural good. 

Anais Hayes, Head of YouTube, Consumer Retail Brands at Google, picked this campaign as an example of an incredibly powerful piece of work, but said that it’s important that technology doesn’t overshadow the idea. 

“One of the things we were looking for, coming from a digital perspective, is the core insight,” she explained. “Making sure that the craft does not obscure the intention, and that using the cool new platform or cool new technology does not obscure what is the purpose of this activity, and what it’s trying to achieve.”

Creative e-commerce can be transformational – for society as well as the consumer experience

E-commerce has thrived through the pandemic era, which has seen creative possibilities around the medium explode. Jean Lin, Global CEO, Creative, at Dentsu, says the e-commerce jury this year specifically looked for ideas that inspired, redefined business models, offered human and cultural insights, and utilised an unexpected channel or platform. She chose The Big Issue’s Raising Profiles campaign as an example of all of this, for the way it used LinkedIn to reconnect Big Issue sellers with customers in lockdown, upskilling them digitally along the way. 

“It’s important because it’s really creating data and humanity together in this business idea,” she explained. “It’s transformational because it’s not just riding on the trend of coronavirus and change. It’s transforming the entire business model.”

“E-commerce obviously is a no-brainer in a year of Covid, but a lot of companies are using creativity to really connect the commerce experience with how they can help their employees, their consumers, and people in need,” she added. “I predict we’re going to see even more interesting work in that category in the next few years.”

Creativity for good should go beyond the bandwagon

The jury, in general, felt that purpose-led creative work can run the risk of becoming ‘bandwagony’ – with brands attaching themselves to causes without enough consideration. “I would rather brands do it more slowly, but right, than turn something that’s so important into a trend of the week,” said Hayes. “It’s critically important to know who is making the creative but also what’s the result of that, what’s the impact of that. Is it something that really positively affects the community in the case of raising profiles or speaking up, or is it something that’s purely branding?”

Companies should ensure that causes they attach themselves to resonate with the brand itself and, as Lin pointed out, authenticity still reigns supreme. “The consumer is now watching over you to make sure that what you say is exactly the same as what you do, and that connection to authenticity is the key battleground to win mind and heart from any audience you want to engage with,” she said. 

This authenticity extends to the team behind the camera, which also needs to reflect any kind of cultural or social statement a brand is making. “It’s really important to see the people who made the work, and all these bits of the campaign that really ladder up to a bigger point,” said Dev. “It’s important where the money is going who are the directors behind it? What is the production team? If they’re almost 150 people getting paid, what is the demographic? Is it just the campaign, or is it beginning to end, and everything the campaign is doing is working towards that goal.”

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