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The Roses Awards celebrate the fact that many of the UK’s most talented creatives work beyond its capital city. This year’s jury is led by Richard Denney, executive creative director at St Luke's. He spoke to The Drum about how the pandemic precipitated a creative refresh, and what that means for ads of the future.

Impact on creativity 

“From a business perspective, the greatest damage was caused by uncertainty in the market, and the first couple of quarters were tough,” Denney explains.

“We weren’t shut down or sitting at home, but plenty of work got put on hold immediately. Other agencies and partners who had big out-of-home campaigns in production were told to just stop, because nobody was going to see them.” Reduced salaries, redundancies, a lack of jobs – all these contributed to the difficulty.

But it also presented an opportunity. “On the flip side, it demonstrated to some client partners that we were needed, that creativity was needed.” An example of the creativity that really impressed Denney was the team that 3D-printed valves for oxygen masks that were in short supply at the start of the pandemic. “They literally helped people to breathe again. That’s creativity in a crisis.”

In some ways, being in crisis together also united the industry. “We were sitting at home, and we all wanted to still be heard – shouting, we’re still here! We became more collaborative and supportive of one another.”

London's falling

Thanks to the rise in remote working, people are moving out of London and the country's creative hotspots are changing. “[The pandemic] has made us all stop and think and re-evaluate. More people are moving out, and realising they don’t mind working outside of [big hubs like] London.”

To make the most of it, he thinks the industry will have to figure out which aspects of the new working normal it wants to keep. Both agencies and clients are more accustomed to the concept of remote working. “On the whole, we’re proved we can do it – we’ve all had the occasional WiFi nightmare.”

But while most companies probably won’t return to a full five-day week in the office, being forced to work remotely has highlighted how much can get done face to face. “When we’re together, we can solve things quickly, get to the answers quicker.”

He believes the solution will be a combination of new and old. “As long as transport links are effective, and you work with flexible partners, we’re going to notice that effect expanding.” And it’s not confined to the UK – Denney has friends and colleagues elsewhere in the world who report the same trend.

Local talent

Born from necessity, remote production has proved its efficacy this year. Denney recounts shooting a commercial outside of the UK last year. “Normally, we’d all go. But for safety, it was just me. After every shot, we’d get together on Zoom to discuss. The cast and crew formed a bubble for the duration of the shoot.”

Did it work? “Yes, but it took a lot longer,” he admits. “But it has forced us to re-evaluate how we work.” Agencies could use this model when strapped for cash, for instance. It creates new options. And he believes that in turn leads to new ideas. “I saw an ad for a breakdown recovery service that, because they couldn’t film live on the road, turned to puppetry and animation.” Working with limitations also gives rise to more creative solutions.

Even as the vaccine is rolled out, Denney is sceptical of a speedy return to the old way of life: “We have to think strategically, not just in terms of communications, but also with regard to production.” In a difficult situation, he advises agencies to shake up their old patterns. “Look for new talent, a new sound studio, a new designer or animator or illustrator or filmmaker that comes from a different place,” he suggests. “And - they might be set up with a crew to do something remotely for you.”

The pandemic has given rise to some work Denney has found very memorable. Sheffield’s Uber Agency created a virtual memorial wall as part of a campaign called Infect.Love, which became an organic, global phenomenon. McCann Manchester built a digital campaign for condom brand Skyn that hides baby pictures via a Chrome extension. “That made me chuckle – it was called Baby Blocker, and worked across different social channels. It’s a clever product demonstration using digital.”

As many turn to animation to avoid the challenges of live filming, it’s important to stand out. “We’ve seen a lot more animation talent come to the forefront – it’s been brilliant.” For Denney, Aardman continue to lead the pack. “Its ‘Creature Discomforts’ campaign for the Born Free foundation used the very relatable concept of lockdown to highlight the plight of captive animals.”

The finalists for The Drum Roses Awards will be announced on Wednesday 28 April. A virtual award ceremony will be held on 19 May. More information is available on the website.