Will 2021 be like 2020?

by Tony Savarimuthu – CEO, Dentsu LHS & Merdeka LHS Malaysia

To put the current global crisis in perspective, by the end of January, more lives will be lost to the pandemic in the United States than the country’s military death toll in WW2 of 406,000.

Notwithstanding the development of the Covid-19 vaccine in record time, the largest, most advanced and creative economy in the world is in upheaval on many fronts.

What more the less developed nations of the world?

How much of a realistically readapted environment exists to help us create the best work for brands?

Even Jurgen Klopp who smashed to an incredible list of trophies this past year has to adapt without the sound and wind of The Kop behind him, and an injury list that has clearly hampered his club’s ambitions. The competition has clearly caught up and overtaken him, as it will for many brands who are used to depending on the free-flowing marketing armoury to use at will.

The famous Apple commercial reads ‘On January 24Apple Computer will introduce MacintoshAnd you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984’. Right now we are all hoping that 2021 won’t be like 2020. Planning to be clear-sighted about what we can do about it is the best way forward. It’s an unenviable task for leaders operating in turbulent times, and one which acts as a testbed for their leadership capabilities.


One of the improvements in our ‘readapted environment’ is the opportunity for learning and skills and knowledge enhancement delivered at a fraction of the cost or free from multiple sources.

At Dentsu, the company’s Skills Academy and the Creative Academy have been a vital source of engagement to enhance our own ability to learn and grow, as well as offer real world solutions to clients. The Cannes Lions organisation’s programmes, Contagious seminars, and MasterClass (which I am a particular fan of ) are all true gifts in these times to spur us creatively.

It’s often easy for organisations to ask their talent to dedicate time each week for their own personal development, but during these times each individual needs to empower themselves to that commitment towards self-growth. Immediate supervisors and learning officers have a more than crucial role to play in being true talent growth partners to their staff and consider how this affects strategic and creative outcomes for their clients.

Creative isolation

Dreams make the team work. And teamwork makes the dream work. In this period of creative isolation the question of how teams work to produce ideas comes to the fore.

What more can we do besides congregating around screens? I am grateful for the opportunities to follow and participate using Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Some creatives prefer the solitude to think and ideate on their own without interruption but creativity also operates in a very dynamic environment with the spark of conversations, social connections and agency life being central to it.

Till now at least. Isolation – which can at times trigger mental health issues – and solitude which artists require to be productive are two different things however. Creatives who are emboldened by the dreams and team-working ethos set by their leaders inevitably rise to the occasion. To that we can say that Brian Epstein and George Martin where important cogs in The Beatles wheel.  

Producing work

Just how many shoots are being postponed or cancelled for the current phase of the MCO? Ideas can’t be taken to market if they are not produced.

There are many creative leaders here who have become adept at working under less than ideal situations using whatever equipment, talent and production crew they have under their disposal and still working under the conditions set by the authorities.

Everyone must have heard the Tom Cruise episode on the set of the next Mission: Impossible 7. Cruise had some ‘choice words’ for some crew members who weren’t complying with rules on set related to Covid -19 prevention. While it wasn’t pleasant to hear, he received both brickbats and kudos.

Don’t cancel or postpone – clients, their creative and production partners can do the next best thing to get their ideas to market adhering strictly to the rules set.  Many have done so. For example, The Coca-Cola Company’s global campaign ‘For the Human Race’ was developed when the Covid Pandemic was at a critical stage and the industry was operating under immense movement restrictions. 

The campaign went viral with millions of views – making the brand relevant and giving it a social purpose when the world was in crisis. Following the main film, mini films – celebrating the unsung heroes of the pandemic – were developed for seven markets including Italy, Spain, and the US, which experienced tight lockdowns.

Life’s a pitch

A talking head on a screen or a voice behind a keynote or power-point chart? I have watched my colleagues Hwa and Szu, and the late Yasmin Ahmad over the years in boardrooms honing and perfecting their art as creators of ideas and presenters.

This has made me think about how much the power of ideas is determined and influenced by the person behind it. A Live audience and the presenter were central to the idea being bought, coming to fruition and eventually – moving products and brands in the marketplace. 

Presentations have to be reinvented for the new reality. No doubt the power of an idea lies in its simplicity, and some say clients may not need the fanfare to understand this. But then again why do people go to a Live concert instead of just tuning into Spotify or Apple Music?

Show and Tell

Under the circumstances, besides the latest presentation software and interactive screens one can use, who can inspire us? Who can we learn from? Talk show hosts like Trevor Noah, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert – operating in a different field – have reinvented their respective shows without a Live audience.

Despite having prepared and having experienced my own fair share of technical hiccups during presentations, I marvel at CNN John King’s election Magic Wall (no more than a respectable screen size you would have at home) and the way in which he brings data alive with his own remarkable insights.

No doubt it is expected that presentations should be creative, idea-centred, clever, insightful and answer the brief. But it should not be boring considering that some important decision-makers are viewing a screen from multiple locations.

Is there going to be pre-pandemic levels of growth this year or perhaps next?

We shouldn’t bet against it, but try to take some small but steady steps to ensure that we influence and achieve the outcomes we desire.

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