Question of the Week
Lessons from 2021
We asked a medley of brilliant minds what they learned this year
16 December 2021
It’s the end of 2021 and the if there’s one thing I can personally be happy about, it is that my favourite film Groundhog Day is still relevant.
Because for many, 2021 proved to be a year that compounded the lessons of 2020. After last year's isolation, many realised in 2021 that a Zoom call could not in fact replace real-world interaction, and that personal relationships of worth are often only built when meeting in person.
This is an idea that re-arose after a year of gradual unlocking. In 2021, we all got a taste of what once was — we got to go to sports events, concerts and even see our GPs — and were reminded by the fact that, when it comes to things such as enjoyment or creativity, real-life networks and connections are king.
We are after all, a social species, and are only now recovering from the year of segregation brought on by the pandemic. It may be that the Omicron variant extends this period, but if this year's Christmas campaigns showed us anything, it is that people want to be together again, come hell or high water.
Indeed, VCCP’s latest report is testament to this, showing that whilst many last year forfeited festivities, this year there is a “last-hurrah” mentality sweeping the nation which looks to prioritise meeting with others before we are unable to do so again.
What 2021 has shown us then then it is that our want for togetherness is ingrained and isn't something that can be washed away by a year of isolation. The need for real-life interaction is real, and is something baked into our very being. Arguably, the best lesson from 2021 is that we all remembered this.
For without interaction there can be no debate. Without debate there can be no friction. Without friction there can be no creativity. If 2021 has shown us anything, it is that new normal of 2020 was counterintuitive to the creative process and that, in short, it is more difficult to share ideas when not in person (metaverse be damned).
With that said, read on to find out what some of advertising’s brightest felt they had learnt in the first year of the new decade, and let it serve as a reminder that — despite our technological tendencies — human interaction is the cornerstone of creativity.
Karen Martin, chief executive, BBH London
"What this year has highlighted is the need for generosity and empathy in all aspects of our lives — both personal and professional. By opening up and listening, we unlock a new approach to leadership — one that empowers our people, makes our professional lives more fulfilling and one that unlocks solutions to issues that are impossible to solve if more rigid and closed off. What’s more, we can only truly embrace diversity when understanding more varied points of view. With generosity and empathy at the core of leading organisations, we can build more open and trusted partnerships with clients and explore more creative ways to solve business challenges."
Sam Hawkey, chief executive, Abbott Mead Vickers BDDO
"It’s a cliché now but one that is even more pronounced after 2021. It is about people and really nothing else. The industry is guilty of lots of things but the biggest is not looking after our people. Lots will say that’s because of short-term pressures on revenue and profit targets but ultimately it is about forward planning and commitment to overcome those things. Because if we care about our people, pay them their value and be transparent about what we are doing and why it is important they will always work hard to achieve great things. Once you create this trust and that bond you can let them off the leash to push the boundaries. And with that cocktail of mutual trust, value and entrepreneurialism then the worlds your oyster. You could say somethings never change."
Kate Rowlinson, chief executive, Mediacom
"My greatest learning of 2021 is less a revelatory discovery and more a reinforcement of an enduring truth: relationships, and our ability to build successful ones, are the cornerstone of what we do.
"The relationships we enjoy with clients, colleagues and partners are the keys to unlocking growth, opportunity, personal development and job satisfaction. Relationships are what make this industry so wonderful, and it isn’t hard to build them because there are so many intelligent, talented, charismatic and hilarious people to meet, befriend and do business with.
"Perhaps this fact is more apparent to me this year because we’ve been so hampered in our ability to build and nurture relationships in real life through various restrictions. Whilst lockdowns have, in many ways, been the enemy of relationships, we have seen an industry-wide trend towards better and stronger client satisfaction scores. Meeting our clients and colleagues in their homes via Zoom and Teams — with kids and pets making impromptu appearances — has been a great leveller and has led to a deepening of partnerships.
"But there’s no substitute for face-to-face chat. For those who have been in the office in the intervening months since July 19th I’m sure, like me, they have realised how much of what we do is spontaneous. Office working allows for space and time to talk, share ideas, laugh and build and cement great relationships. There’s more laughter when you’re physically with other people. It’s a fact.
"As we embark on another work from home journey, I have no doubt that we’ll continue to cement and build enduring relationships, as has proven possible remotely. But I look forward to the moment when we can safely commune back together in person, for at least some of the working week, and make those relationships even stronger and more powerful."
Richard Denney, executive creative director, St Luke’s
"For me 2021 has been about reconnection. We started to meet a lot more in person again and although we proved that we can make it work living on our laptops — whether that was winning pitches or shooting ads remotely — nothing beats the energy and inventiveness, face-to-face time has to offer.
"When you are all in together there’s chemistry, it’s a real buzz, and the banter goes to another level. We get to feed off each other, which has a knock-on effect on those around us. We solve things quicker and more effectively. And although we may never go back to five days in the office, the time we spend in our agency habitat making shit happen all together is crucial for the next generation of talent.
"On a Zoom call you only get to see the thing you’re working on, you don’t hear about other stuff until the all-agency Zoom meetings. Thank god for those! In your agency you get to see and feel everything as it unfolds. Nothing inspires us more than seeing the work around us being created. Hearing all the conversations taking place gives us food for thought. It makes a huge impact and it pushes us on our own projects. But most of all it’s a lot more fun. And that after all is why we got into this business in the first place."
Jon Goulding, chief executive, Atomic London
"That planning for the medium term is a total waste of time. Getting through periods of intense change is only manageable if you put all your efforts into dealing with it one day at a time whilst keeping a total focus on the long-term game plan. Everything else is a waste of precious energy."
Jemima Monies, deputy managing director, adam&eveDDB
"To let go: the pursuit of perfection has always been a major flaw of mine. It can be cumbersome and exhausting. But when I returned from maternity leave the first time and realised that the walls hadn’t fallen in in my absence — in fact quite the opposite — despite things not being done exactly my way, I started to see that perfectionism is not the only path to success. And for someone who had to respond to every single email received, the moment I hit CONTROL > ALL > DELETE of the 5467 emails that had built up in my absence, I knew I was on to something.
"This year has been trying for everyone, with more ups and downs than even perhaps the previous year. And having opened a coffee shop business with my husband half way in (where naturally I’ve been responsible for the social media) and two under 5s to wrangle, it has been impossible to stay on top of everything. There have been times when I’ve shut my laptop without finishing my to-do list and gone to bed without clearing the kitchen. There have been times when I’ve not perfectly lined up all the images on a pitch slide or crafted an email in the way I would have liked to. I’ve written many imperfect Instagram posts for the shop and printed menus on the wrong stock paper. Before, these things would have haunted me, but learning to let go has been incredibly liberating and helped me recognise when keeping going won’t make a significant difference to the outcome. Letting go has given me back time and opened up mental space, allowing me to progress without striving for perfection."