Creative Report Card 2021: The WFH experiment

One year into the pandemic, how has quarantine impacted creativity and relationships?


This story is part of a series exploring the ideas and strategies that helped propel the 2021 Creative Report Card winners to the top. Be sure to check out other coverage of the CRC, as well as the full rankings across brands, agencies, creatives and strategists.

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of strategy.

Agency land is in the midst of a massive group experiment.

In March 2020, creatives were sent home in droves as agencies (and the world) began to grasp the severity of the evolving COVID situation.

Many believed – or hoped – that the office hiatus would be short-lived. Instead, they became the unwitting test subjects in an industry-wide pilot project that continues to unfold.

Can creativity be nurtured from the confines of kitchen tables and bedroom workstations? Do creative relationships, as the ad world knew them before the crisis, die or thrive under lockdown? What is the good, the bad and the ugly of a year stuck in place?

To gauge how industry talent has fared since the pandemic began, Strategy spoke to some of the top copywriters, art directors and designers on this year’s Creative Report Card about their experiences.

While there’s no question that many are itching to get back to some of the old ways and familiar faces, the COVID experiment has yielded mixed results.

The not-so-surprising downside

BBDO’s Mike Nugent should feel on top of the world right now.

In January, the #1 Designer on the CRC was named design director as the agency looked to grow the department. And between wrapping up a number of multi-year, big branding assignments, Nugent and his wife have been spending much of their time at home with their children – their second, born in early 2020, is a “full pandemic baby.”

Still, the designer says he’s coming off “the most challenging work year” he’s ever had.

Once the office cleared out, BBDO’s teams had to find new ways to collaborate. In a physical shared workspace, there are moments when “you’re walking by someone’s desk and you can spitball ideas and work off each other – that’s been lost,” Nugent says.

Spencer Dingle, the report card’s #4 Art Director and a CD at Broken Heart Love Affair (BHLA) who also became a father during the pandemic, agrees that it was “really hard at first, trying to get used to not being in the same room as people. As creatives, especially, you thrive on the energy in the room, and when that’s not there, it’s hard to focus and come up with good work.”

Dingle – who along with creative partner Jordan Hamer (#6 Copywriter) moved to BHLA from Cossette in December – notes he used to be able to pop into the offices of former co-CCOs Carlos Moreno and Peter Ignazi just to run a “crazy thought” by them – a habit that would likely cause frustration among senior leaders at less flexible organizations. While BHLA’s leaders (including Moreno) have made themselves very accessible, Dingle says the experience isn’t the same through screens.

With less time spent shooting the breeze, longer and more frequent virtual meetings have filled the void, imposing a more structured schedule on creatives based on “intentional periods of conversation,” Nugent says. “[As a result], for a lot of people, they’re needing to make up for some of the [lost] work time. And they’re working more at night.”

Rethink’s Zachary Bautista, the #2 Art Director, has his own take on things. He, too, has been spending more time after-hours on assignments, hoping that “when I put my head back up, we’ll be out of the pandemic.” In that sense, he says, the pandemic has unwittingly turned him into the “best and worst versions of myself.”

But, unlike the others, Bautista feels the new digital environment has encouraged more informal communication between creative teams. Before, he and his creative partner would “step out to a coffee shop or [somewhere] close to the office to hide from anyone hunting for us at our desk,” he says. Now, you’re only ever a Slack or text message away. “That’s the tough part – it has blurred the lines of availability.”

Bautista and Dingle agree that they remain as tied to their creative partners as ever before, only now it’s through “always-on” virtual meetings that often get interrupted by conversations with roommates or partners and other mundane tasks – though some activities, such as folding laundry, can help lubricate the imagination while working, notes Bautista.

The problem is “people lose track of time, especially in the Zoom world,” he says. “You’re just like, ‘Holy shit, it’s seven [o’clock] and I didn’t realize that we’re still talking on the call.”

The calls may last hours, but for Bautista, their effectiveness pales in comparison to in-person brainstorming sessions – one partner might wander down a YouTube rabbit hole or respond to an urgent email, while the other remains focused on the task at hand, he says. “The tough thing about Zoom is that I have the entire internet in front of me.”

Until the pandemic is fully under control, Dingle adds that health and safety measures have sucked the joy out of some of the most enjoyable parts of agency work, such as going to shoots and pre-production meetings. “All that stuff that’s part of the creative process has all been stripped away, and you’re just left with ideation and writing and meetings.”

The surprising upside

Despite the challenges of WFH, it’s not all doom and gloom.

The #2 and #3 Copywriters – FCB’s Shannon McCarroll and former FCBer Jason Soy, who recently moved to Cossette – for example, have found a bustling office is not always conducive to work requiring a lot of concentration – such as writing outstanding copy.

As McCarroll points out: it’s not uncommon for copywriters to find themselves on a roll, the lines writing themselves as they hammer away at the keys, when suddenly someone (usually an accounts person) taps them on the shoulder.

“There’s none of that at home,” she says. “I don’t face writer’s block as much as I did at work. Maybe the writer’s block was literally someone blocking the writer from working.”

Soy agrees that copywriting from home has been “a small blessing,” because “we do need to sit down, hunker down and focus on our craft. The lack of distractions has actually made my work [easier] – I’m getting it done a lot faster, overall.”

Does Soy miss the spontaneous social interactions and moments of collective inspiration that come with working in an office? Absolutely, he says. But, if you’re an introvert, “this is kind of your time to shine.”

He and McCarroll add that the situation has helped them break out of their “advertising bubbles” and find ideas in places they may not have previously thought to look.

“I take inspiration now from the outside world, people outside of advertising – like my roommate, who’s a kindergarten teacher,” McCarroll says.

The days of clocking out on a Thursday and heading to the bar, where you inevitably talk shop with colleagues and friends, are gone, she says. Instead, people like her are now spending all day with someone who is not an ad person. “You’re getting more opinions, and you’re watching more TV shows. So I think we’re breaking out of the bubble of advertising.”

“Which is ultimately better,” adds Soy, “because all the best ads aren’t really ads anyways… The more we are able to draw from external sources outside of advertising, the better.”

During his time at home, Soy discovered another creativity hack: create a side business in which you’re both the client and the creative genius behind the work. The copywriter launched Uncle Soy’s Smart Rice, a parody rice brand whose purpose is to help dry smartphones and tablets, as “an outlet for me to do parody work, [to create] ads that no brand would ever buy.”

Dingle is also spending more time feeling inspired by stuff outside of advertising.

“The pandemic’s been a curse, obviously – for the most part. I don’t want to say anything’s been good about it,” he says. “But it has afforded me a lot of time to focus on things I like.” These include visiting art blogs and watching movies he might otherwise not have time to see, activities he believes will ultimately have a net impact on the work he produces.

“It’s given me a lot of time to think about what kind of work I want to make – work that could potentially change people’s perspectives or thoughts,” Dingle says. “I just want to make thought-provoking work. If you turn to the art world or the film world, you’ll generally find bigger ideas there that are experimental and things that stay with you.”