Inclusivity diversity branding

Ask any brand marketer what is their ESG strategy, and chances are they’ll tell you they have one in place or about to embark on one. But ask them what is their DEI strategy, and chances are they’ll stare at you blankly: D-E-Wha..? An acronym for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, DEI impacts not just business decisions and operations but also branding. And this is a conversation we must have.

If you’re a brand owner, are you practising it? Or if you’re an agency marketer, planner or creative, are you helping your client actively promote it? If not, why? And more important, how can we fix this?


So…what exactly is DEI?

DEI is a term used to describe policies and programmes that promote the representation and participation of different groups of individuals. These include people of different ages, races and ethnicities, abilities and disabilities, genders, religions, cultures and sexual orientations. It’s a component of the “S” pillar in ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance).

Imagine the classic Coke Hilltop ad. But a hundred times more diverse and inclusive. TBH, looking back at the ad now, it seems to have barely scratched the surface of what DEI means today.


The diversity and inclusion problem with brands

When was the last time you saw variety in representation and participation in local advertising? How about in marketing briefs? On the product shelves? Or at the workplace?

Not to put too much a damper on it, the advertising scene has indeed made some positive strides. Those who have been in advertising for a while will remember a time when ads featured (and client briefs actually requested for) predominantly pan-Asian talents. Why? Ohh, because they economically convey multiculturalism (debatable), because they are generally good looking (at least according to those few microstock libraries that dominated the scene then), and because they are “aspirational” (perpetuated by ads, no doubt…it’s circular logic fallacy at its best/worst). Today, that sort of thinking strikes us as severely tone deaf, but many seasoned marketers will remember those days. And everyone bought into it. It was diversity of products chasing inclusion of 1 ethnic group.

And then something happened. China rose, and the Chinese demonstrated strong spending power. And where the money is, the scene follows. We started to see more Chinese talents in ads. Combined with an increasingly hyperconnected world where everyone has a platform and a voice; the popularisation of design thinking; and the embracement of UX, CX, and personalisation in marketing; the world started to splinter. And so did advertising. To a degree.

For one, I am grateful to now see briefs that no longer state “mass” as a TA (ugghhh… good riddance), but go deeper into customer personas. Yet, the personas we are asked to market to are invariably Chinese (if there’s a picture attached to the brief), or a faceless “Jennifer” or “Raymond”, who, wouldn’t you know it, is a Millennial (sometimes an older Gen-Z) who lives in a condo, happily married and works at an MNC.

So what’s the problem here?


1. Lack of focus, lack of resources

Unquestionably, brands are starting to ring the clarion bell of sustainability. It’s become a marketing imperative. However, for brands with an ESG mandate, most focus on the “E”, neglecting the “S” and the “G”. Conversations around sustainability inevitably circle climate change. This is of course the lowest hanging fruit. Because it impacts “everyone”, and they think it’s what everyone is preoccupied with. We therefore see brands across industries embracing sustainability messaging, pledging green practices, products and design.

But sustainability means people and planet. While we’re glad so much attention has been placed on the climate (and rightfully so), the question remains: Where’s the people in this equation? For those brands that do dip into the “S” pillar of their ESG mandate, their focuses tend to be around poverty and gender equality. And these focuses occasionally spill into their CSR initiatives. And that’s great!  But there’s so much more to “S” than that.

A Kantar study purported that 88% of consumers think not enough brands do a good job representing them or their community. However, most marketers will tell you limited resources prevent them from picking up multiple swords. Others will advise that if you stand for everything, you stand for nothing. And they’re not wrong. The question then becomes, Do you want to add to the noise and harmonise with a chorus, or do you have appetite to start a new conversation?


2. The representation fallacy

Many brand owners trip up on the fallacy that customers respond to only images of themselves. That they want to see themselves in ads. Yes, people do want to see themselves and their experiences mirrored in advertising. Yet, the opposite isn’t necessarily true: That consumers will reject brands that don’t feature their likeness. This is an advertising fallacy. Just because Dove does not feature male talents in most of their ads has not stopped men from buying Dove. Just because I see a makcik shilling NTUC Fairprice has never stopped me from patronage.

On the contrary, studies have shown the inverse to be true: Ads that feature positive portrayal of marginalised groups actually see lifts in effectiveness, including on short-term sales and long-term brand building. A Deloitte study suggests that 69% of brands with representation in ads saw an average stock gain of 44%. Considering that most brands today chase the Millennial and Gen Z dollar, it’s surprising not more of them actively promote diversity and inclusion, seeing as these demographics are most sensitive toward the topic.


3. Outdated data, antiquated biases

There’s probably enough literature out there about the need to be data-driven. It behooves the brand owner to plot their course based on updated data and market opportunity. One suspects many are still operating on outdated hunches, possible hearsays and very real biases. But a deeper probe could reveal, for instance, the true spending power of Baby Boomers or that people of colour in some parts of the world now have more spending power than ever. Or how about the fact that marketers for the last 2 decades have already acknowledged the power of the “pink dollar”. Yet, for 20 years, we have seen shockingly little mainstream attempts to market to the LGBTQIA+ community. Might any of these be your untapped markets? If so, how can you reach them?

Some marketers will appreciate the occasional inclusion of a trans talent or a heavy-set model in a presentation slide. But they will fall short of agreeing to actually placing these talents in their ads. It’s possible they believe they are selling a dream: That people want to see “actualised” selves in advertising. But they may have missed the fact that advertising today no longer trades in fantasy, but authenticity. Sociologically there is no longer a standard definition of beauty or perfection. That many people already feel actualised, but it’s advertisers who are telling them they have not arrived.

Others would reason that society and consumers are still not ready; that putting out “controversial” ads will alienate customers and significantly dampen sales and brand image. Such sensitivity in marketing is of utmost importance, to be sure, but some markets may be more ready than we think. Is your market one of them?


4. No such stuff

Even if we manage to cross the 1st 3 hurdles and decide to widen our repertoire for representation and chase diversity and inclusion in our work, we find the industry infrastructure lacking. For starters, search “diversity” or “inclusion” on most stock libraries and you’ll see images relating to gender and race. Yay for gender equality and inclusion! Ditto racial representation! We can chalk it up to a win, but there’s lots more to be done. Where are the disabled, the seniors, the LGBTQIA+? It’s not that these libraries lack such images…they’re merely hidden behind a paywall or poor keyword tagging. If we want to change the world, we want to start by changing how we see the world ourselves.


Why it is important for brands to take a stand on diversity and inclusion

Not to overstate the obvious, but brands can make a positive impact on society. After all, brands are made by people, for people. Products and advertising, like all media content, art and pop culture, have the power to shape the way we understand the world. They have the ability to influence how we understand ourselves and relate to others. The good news is, things are changing.

Case in point: According to WARC, 2020 and 2021 were pivotal years for brands in acknowledging the need to pursue diversity, equity and inclusion across all aspects of marketing. In 2021, diversity searches including race, ethnicity, ability, age, body and LGBTQIA+ increased 104% from 2019. While downloads of diverse content increased by a massive 191% from 2019; with 3 million more downloads of content that included more authentic representation of communities in 2021. More than 50% global consumers in a Kantar study, meanwhile, acknowledged that brands “have an important part to play” in social conversations.

The world has spoken, but are we listening?


How we can get on board diversity and inclusion

Progressive portrayals of diversity and inclusion can indeed play a role in delivering more effective advertising, and is now key to brand trust. So where do we start? How can we build an inclusive brand?


1. Be intentional about it

Whether penning a brief and creating an ad, mindfully cast your net wider. Don’t rely on muscle memory. Develop and train new muscles. Must your talent be an ethnic majority? Or must they be young and cisgender? Is “fresh off the runway” the best look for that ad? Consider if real portrayals of everyday people might send a clearer message about authenticity. Perhaps a middle-aged couple can better convey a story of actualisation. Be intentional about who you cast as the protagonist of your story and campaign. Go beyond the obvious.

Diversity and inclusiojn


If you’re writing copy, how do you handle gender pronouns? When building data forms, are you giving the consumer more options beyond “Male” and “Female” when it comes to gender? (Assuming this is even a necessary question to ask.)

And if you’re in the business of product and experience design, how about overcoming any unconscious ableism and think about whether there’s a need to (re)shape your products or edit navigational conventions so as to make your designs more accessible to, well, more?


With all brands having social media presence now too, you can also very quickly produce micro stories that expand on your brand and product universe without busting your wallet. So start telling more stories to connect your brand to a wider spectrum of audience.


2. Go beyond a demographics checkbox exercise

Intentional casting is great, but you must go beyond mere presence and representation. Diversity and inclusion is not a checkbox exercise lest you get accused of the social equivalence of greenwashing. Already, some brands like Calvin Klein and Balmain have come under some shade for less-than-delicate handling of talents in their #MYCALVINS and Balmain Army campaigns respectively. The former being accused of queerbaiting, and the latter for creating idealised and ultimately fictional (and literally, fake) talents not grounded in reality.

When portraying diversity, we mustn’t forget we’re dealing with real stories and real experiences behind very real people. Let’s celebrate, not commoditise. Go beyond casting and mere visual representation. How? By focusing on emotions, attitude, psychographics and what’s archetypal to the human experience. Because these run deep and are universal. These will help you avoid tokenism, and effectively connect your TA to those whose stories you’re trying to tell. Remember: When we tell stories of diversity, we are not creating divide, but seeking to unite.


So focus on painting positive portrayals of people, rather than demographics, or worse, chase an empty box-ticking exercise which will certainly backfire. The 2022 TV series And Just Like That learned this the hard way. No one appreciated its forced “wokeness”. And just like that, they lost many fans. Don’t make yours a cautionary tale too.


3. Research the opportunity, practise design thinking

If it’s been awhile since you conducted a market study, do one now. Re-evaluate the market viability of your product and service. Is there an untapped market? What you thought were your TA from 5 years ago could’ve identified themselves differently now. Are you still relevant to them?

When you’ve identified a segment, flex design thinking. Recruit them into your focus or testing group. Understand them as people, and see the world from their lens. The best advertising thrives on empathy. It’s our most powerful weapon yet. So wield it.


4. Examine your brand purpose

While at it, is it time to also examine and re-evaluate your brand? We live in an age of purpose. What is your brand’s purpose today? If you haven’t identified one, you should get down to doing so. If you already have a purpose, check if it’s an inclusive one. Remember: An inclusive purpose tackles injustice and harmful stereotypes.

A revitalised, culturally relevant brand purpose can then enhance your brand narrative and steer your advertising strategies. Ask yourself: Can you see your brand in the future of a diverse and inclusive nation?

Diversity and inclusion


5. Enforce DEI initiatives at the workplace

It’s also important to be inclusive in your hiring. Many have documented the benefits of doing so. Key among which is that cultural inclusion gives you richness and variety in voices, solutions and creativity. Ideas become richer when you tap into the multiplicity of passions and experience that you won’t be able to access in a homogenous setting. When you have idea diversity, unexpected patterns can start to form. Follow this simple formula: Group work = good; groupthink = bad.

So forego pithy aphorisms like “great minds think alike” or the myth that cultural streamlining yields speed and efficiency. For small companies or teams, however, it may not be realistic to have (as) much diversity: They simply do not have the headcount. If you’re one of those companies or teams, you just have to be even more intentional about involving the relevant group(s) outside your core dynamic; doing so will help to expand your sphere of consideration, ideas and thinking so you can develop richer, more accurate and effective work. You may wish to set aside some of your marketing or HR budget for this purpose.


6. Be an inspiration

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! No one said DEI work is easy. We need vanguards and champions in this industry. Will you be one of them? Take a lead, leave a wake, shape a new reality and improve lives. Market mindfully; and not just for business impact but also for social impact. Be bold and be brave! After all, we’re advertisers, creatives and marketers. It’s in our DNA to shape culture, paint possibilities and think beyond. Just as we have been inspired by advertising giants before us, we can look at creating a legacy now to inspire others after us. The world has many stories yet left to tell. Will you join me in telling them?


Shopstreaming ecommerce

The pandemic has brought about significant disruption, that much we know. But some disruptions have proven positive, like accelerating innovations and moving certain industries forward. IBM reported that COVID-19 has shifted the ecommerce scene by 5 years. And that supports what we’ve witnessed as marketers and consumers too. Brands that have been slow to get on board the freight train finally did, not as a matter of choice but circumstance. Brands that have been selling on ecommerce had to innovate to stand out, as new players level the playing field. One of these innovations has no doubt been shopstreaming, the trend that’s taking online shopping by storm. It’s where shopping intersects livestreaming.


When worlds collide: Shopping and entertainment

Children of the ’90s may remember their parents watching QVC, a live cable station that introduced the concept of merging shopping and entertainment. It was the domain of Joan Rivers–who appeared regularly to hawk jewellery–and many homemakers–who tuned in to watch product demos and catch discounts. (Well, and also bored college students craving background noise while studying late nights…you know, those with a warped sense of humour, the kind stoked by the unpredictability of live TV…see below). QVC’s format was compelling. It merged entertainment, information, drama, audience interaction and shopping. On other channels, we also saw similarly formatted shows (though pre-recorded) filling dead airtime in the form of infomercials, selling anything from ab rollers to waffle makers. Keen to buy? Just pick up your phone and place an order. Zip-po!


QVC, a perfect antidote to bored college kids and homemakers in the ’90s


Fast forward 3 decades later. Shopping is still habit and necessity. But the ways in which we buy are different. Even QVC has moved on to become a digital-led, ecommerce brand. And while infomercials still provide entertainment to those who seek them out in odd pockets of local cable networks, many consumers have migrated to shopping online. And with it the concept of shopping and entertainment too.


2020: The year that was, is and will be

This move to digital was accelerated in 2020, no doubt by 2020. Some industry observers who are not IBM claimed ecommerce had in fact hit 10 years of progress in just 10 months, citing 27% growth in 2020, with 60% of the global market being Asia. Market size? US$5 tril. And it’s not difficult to see why.

The near-global lockdown has forced people to form new purchase habits. And even as some countries started to ease up, the idea of going out, standing in line, fingering products and physically trying on stuff still strikes some as a mixed-bag proposition. And like those dwellers in the allegorical Plato’s Cave, once shoppers have discovered the advantages of ecommerce, it’s difficult for them to see retail the same way again.

So for brands already with an ecommerce and omnichannel strategy in place, it was fortuitous. They saw sustained and increased traffic to their checkout counters, which no doubt included social commerce and some form of shoppable content to boost sales (whether video, posts, or blogs; owned or partnered), even as brick-and-mortar outlets crumbled everywhere, from Ginza to Beijing and Manhattan.


Starface ecommerce

Direct selling by brands on their purpose-built ecommerce websites


in-app ecommerce

…and in-app


social commerce brands

Social and interactive commerce provide further engagement and opportunities to buy


While some brands drive new traffic to their ecommerce platforms from partnered publishers


Meanwhile, seasoned digital retailers like Shopee, Lazada, Taobao, TMall, etc. were busy consolidating their position and building up their walled gardens. The idea being to lure and ensnare users into their world, distracting and entertaining them with anything and everything from shoppable posts to games, and collecting data to serve up even more scintillating content and objects of desire, that they may never leave. And consumers are biting, wandering from page to page like the entranced citizens of Westview in Wanda’s hex, surrendering their willpower and wallets.


China moves the index in shoppertainment by leading the shopstreaming trend

It used to be that in QVC’s heydays, China had a dubious reputation as the land of digital piracy. Today, China is roundly recognised as a beacon of growth and leader in marketing innovation and technology, with the world looking to pirate its success. And we see this play out in the realm of ecommerce too.

China was the first to pull the dynamics of shopping and entertainment closer. While the technology and practice of live chats have existed for a while now, it was only a matter of time before some genius extended that concept to shopping in a world increasingly looking for distractions and things to do at home. And China has been honing their shopstreaming game since 2016. As of Mar 2020, the country had reached 560 mil. livestreaming users, a 110% growth from the year before. That accounts for 62% of the country’s total internet users. Leading platforms are Taobao, Kuaishou and Douyin (TikTok).

Shopstreaming formats run the gamut. From fashion shows and product demos to virtual tours and makeup tutorials, online wine tastings and clothing hauls to electronics auctions and listening parties. They invariably feature hosts and influencers speaking into the camera, responding to questions and comments. Yes, comments. Lots of comments. And evidently, lots of sales.

Tao Bao KOL

In 2018, Taobao’s livestreaming platform sales exceeded 100 bil. CNY, with an annual growth rate of nearly 40%. In 2019, the livestreaming session for Taobao’s Singles’ Day pre-sale had more than 30 mil. viewers. No doubt propelled significantly by personalities like Li JiaQi (China’s “lipstick king”), who at one point in his career managed to sell 15,000 lipsticks in 15 mins. The fact that he could do this for 6 hrs at a go must be some feat of human endurance.


One of China’s reigning shopstreaming personality Li JiaQi (who outsold even Jack Ma in a friendly competition)


And while jewellery, fashion, accessories, and skincare dominate Taobao and JD Live, the pandemic has spurred traditionally offline industries like home appliances and automobiles to make an appearance on those apps too. Even farmers have moved to livestreaming to promote goods from rice to seafood.

Following China’s lead, APAC started to ride this shopstreaming trend in 2020. Digital retailers Lazada and Shopee started to introduce live features. The former rolled out LazLive (which accounts for >16x Lazada’s total gross merchandise value), among other features like See Now Buy Now. The latter, meanwhile, projects a 40% increase in the number of livestreams from brands and sellers in Singapore alone.


Shopstreaming Lazada LazLive

LazLive, Lazada’s in-app livestreaming feature that allows users to interact in real time


And we’re seeing this ripple effect swell to the West. With Shopify partnering LiveScale, we can expect to see even more brands (and not just the big ones) in Western markets surf the shopstreaming wave, particularly in retail, beauty and food, pushing this trend in digital and experiential retail even further.


shopstreaming Walmart x TikTok

Walmart partnered TikTok for the latter’s 1st shoppable livestream event in Dec 2020, where 10 influencers promoted Walmart products with some try-on demos



4 reasons why you should jump on the shopstreaming trend

No matter which side of the pond your business is on, whether you’re a seasoned digital retailer or just now forming a strategy around ecommerce, you’d do well to consider where shopstreaming figures into the mix. Here’s why.


1. Shopstreaming is instant

Instant gratification is the name of the game when it comes to livestreaming. Much like QVC and informercials, it thrives on impulse and spontaneity. You take the viewer from “I didn’t know I needed this” to “Take my money NOW”. The format of (not just real-time but also) live video makes the experience even more immediate and the case compelling. Already we know video works and sells: Consumers much prefer watching a video to reading a static post.

Match all that with exclusive deals and time-sensitive discounts (shopstreaming’s secret weapon: Prey on the neuroscience of scarcity, urgency and FOMO), and you’ve got one helluva sales engine. Made all the easier with 1-click shopping.


2. Shopstreaming is social

Shopping has traditionally been a social activity. Everyone can relate to bringing a girlfriend along to give a point of view on whether that cardigan is really “you” and to talk you down from koala eyes. Humans by nature crave social contact and find social exclusion painful. Tuning in to a livestream of your favourite influencer telling you why you can’t live without that limited edition console? (“Take my money now!…”) And then have a legion of like-minded peers similarly drooling over the same product, expressing their approval with reactions ranging hearts, stars and thumbs up exploding across the screen like the 4th of July? (“…and my car too!”) Never underestimate the power of groupthink, and people’s desire to fit in. Social proof is the other secret weapon in retail.


3. Shopstreaming shortens the sales cycle

Shopstreaming lets you meet users where they are. For many D2C (direct to consumer) brands, this is good news. It lets brands communicate and transact with the consumers wherever they are. From a CX perspective, this is beautiful.

And who is going to splurge a month’s worth of salary on a piece of IT without speaking to the sales assistant? Shopstreaming lets consumers get live assistance quickly. They get a chance to interact with the host or influencer (or an expert or sales assistant) and get the answers they want. This is brilliant UX.


4. Shopstreaming is efficient

Shopstreaming is not sales, neither it is content. It’s neither brand experience nor customer experience. It’s everything rolled into one seductive ball. And it’s beautiful to behold. Like much of shoppertainment, it helps brands achieve not only short-term sales but also long-term brand building. You’re building your brand, relationships and a community. It helps you get from point of inspiration to education to sale. It’s immediate and results-driven, bridging browsing and buying. You educate, engage and transact all within the same session.


Where will you take the shopstreaming trend?

With platforms continually rolling out expanded support and features, and strategic alliances being made both in the East and the West, shopstreaming will become even more sophisticated and frictionless. With digital giants (not just ecommerce brands) like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok also jumping into the fray, all scrambling to integrate not just shoppertainment but also shopstreaming into their platform experience, we can expect to see sustained and accelerated growth. It is the must-have strategy when you’re considering digital transformation trends in retail business.

If you’re already looking at shoppable content, go further to see how you can make it live. If you’ve already got shopstreaming within your crosshairs, go further and see how you can innovate on the format, such as including AR or VR technologies, perhaps leveraging 3D, tapping real or virtual hosts, to make the experience even more engaging, your brand even more interactive, your stories even more compelling and your product even more informative. The shopstreaming trend is just now exploding and there’s plenty of room yet for you to make a difference.

Design Ops and why it matters for efficiency and effectiveness

Increasingly, companies like Airbnb and Dropbox are championing a new term: DesOps. AKA Design Ops. And yes, it can get as tactical as that can possibly sound; but no, it doesn’t involve just moving troops from point A to point B. Rather, Design Ops serves a larger strategic intent. It can impact your organisation’s performance and profitability, as well as improve staff capability and satisfaction.

Whether you’re a PR agency charting communication strategies, or an integrated marketing agency executing omnichannel marketing solutions, you need Design Ops. Perhaps you’re a creative advertising agency designing ad campaigns, or a brand agency designing brand identity guidelines, you too need Design Ops. Maybe you’re managing design in-house (especially if you’re managing design in-house), you need Design Ops. And you need it now more than ever. Why?


First, let’s look at the provenance of the word

The term “Design Ops” was coined in 2014 by Dave Malouf. A thought leader in the field, Malouf championed it as a new and necessary aspect of design management. He likened the approach to running a military operation. Like military ops, launching a project requires coordinated actions against a plan. It involves goals, strategy, tactics, tools, personnel, coordination, agility, and is also time-sensitive. Now, who in advertising isn’t familiar with any of those terms? And you don’t need to have served in the army, or played Call of Duty, to understand military ops either. We see it everywhere.

Remember that climactic battle scene in Avengers: Endgame? You’ve got a mission, a target, air troops and ground troops. You leverage individual strengths and capabilities. And you use tools and weapons to achieve an outcome. And once you’re on the battlefield, you wield, duck and deploy agility as needed. (Because, let’s face it, the battlefield can be full of nasty surprises.)


Why Design Ops now?

You need Design Ops now because the way designers work and interact with each other (and other teams) has changed. It used to be that designers dealt only with graphics, products, interiors and furniture. But as the world moves into a creative economy, everything now becomes “designed”. We’re talking apps, tools, experiences and user journeys. But this is good news. It signals a growing importance and focus on design and its value. It tells us that many organisations no longer need to be convinced to invest in design. It’s an exciting time to be a designer!


The shifting sands of design

But having a seat at the proverbial table also means designers get involved in strategic conversations, participate in more meetings, and being involved in more problem solving. They are no longer the pale, over-caffeinated creatures we’ve come to know. We no longer expect to see them emerge from their ethereal iMac’s glow only after a day of pushing pixels against a brief come nightfall. Now, we expect them to be charismatic, social creatures who are adaptable and always “on”; we expect them to be taking meetings, shaping briefs, analysing research, delivering presentations and consulting on strategies.

Further, with omnichannel marketing comes the need for designers to be familiar with all aspects of integrated marketing services as well. The modern agency landscape has become both fragmented and blended at the same time. And in combinations that are increasingly customised. Nothing’s off-limits: From online to off, UX to UI, thinking to empathy, visual to audio, phygital to sensorial. Now, throw in developments in technology with dizzying new tools all screaming for attention, at an unprecedented time in human history with 6 living generations to design communication for; and put all that into a blender with data and globalisation. And you’ve got a pickle.

There’s constantly new knowledge to pick up, new tools to learn, new expressions to master, new attitudes to hone, and new problems to solve. We see job scopes blurring and roles overlapping. In this climate, as designer of experiences, we need to multi-hat. We’re now researching and strategising, on top of designing. We’re expected to get involved in production too; we sell, we test, and we evangelise. There’s little we don’t do.


The situation now now

Here comes the pandemic panic. As we enter a pandemic/post-pandemic world, we see even more complications arising. We’re talking remote work, distributed teams, multi-office and fluid staffing. Productivity goes virtual, as teams become more “invisible”. And this shapes the next normal. Needless to say, being a designer, running an in-house team, and launching campaigns in this environment means contending with layers of complexity.

Design complexity requires design ops

With complexity comes challenges. How so? We need to rely increasingly on not just mental strength but also WIFI strength for communication. We’re consuming virtual briefs and coping with presentation glitches. Productivity can be compromised when you can’t see who or what you’re dealing with. Just poke around LinkedIn. You read about designers suffering from lack of visibility into related work streams. Project managers having to navigate silos of work, or getting surprised at duplicated efforts. Traffic facing trouble coordinating among teams. Account servicing having to crack new client communication codes. Leaders having to take wild(er) stabs at staffing and priorities.

And the bad news piles on: The speed of delivery continues to be an important measurement of success. And is speed enough? No. It’s not just efficiency we have to deal with, but effectiveness too. And rightly so.


So how can Design Ops help?

Focusing on the health of the organisation, its people and their projects, Design Ops is designed to fix challenges such as:

  • Growing and evolving design teams to keep pace with what the market demands
  • Finding and hiring people with the right skills to develop the work that you want
  • Creating efficient workflows for projects so you improve speed and profitability
  • Improving the quality of design to impact results, stakeholder satisfaction and staff morale


OK, I really need a definition: What is Design Ops?

Design Ops then refers to the planning, defining and management of people, processes and craft (as it relates to design) within an organisation. Its aims are to

  • Ensure the design team becomes a well-oiled machine functioning at high efficiency with low friction
  • Break down team barriers and facilitating collaboration
  • Minimise wastage (time, effort and resources) and miscommunication
  • Make processes scalable without jeopardising quality or creativity

The goal ultimately is to maximise the design team’s value and impact. It’s about creating the best environment for designers to focus on designing, thinking and researching (this is where they make the most strategic impact), rather than being stuck in the boondocks. This is so the organisation can generate high quality design outputs.

This requires balancing efficiency with quality. So many agencies, teams and less-than-strategic leaders focus on efficiency only. But for design to truly have value, you need quality. Let’s break it down:

  • Efficiency: This relates to reducing time and wastage while enhancing collaboration, such as through introducing tools to ease teamwork and communication. This can involve cutting unnecessary steps and introducing automation to streamline workflows
  • Quality: This relates to ensuring the design team has everything they need to produce high quality work. It includes having the right tools, training and set-up to do their best work

And all these elements pivot on Design Ops. The question you have to ask yourself is: Do you have Design Ops in place? Not sure? Read on.


How does Design Ops work?

There are 4 pillars. They prop up efficiency and quality within your organisation. See if you have them; and if you don’t, I suggest you get to it.


Pillar #1: Process

This deals with streamlining workflows for quality and efficiency. It involves

  • Identifying the gaps and weaknesses of an existing process (and then, of course, eliminating them)
  • Striving for clarity of roles and understanding dependencies. This is to avoid double work and unnecessary re-work later on
  • Understanding job complexities. Because it is only by pre-empting landmines can you better route and prepare for agility when required
  • Documenting workflows and processes. This will be the playbook that builds clarity for all, and helps you plan time and resources
  • Optimising your designers’ day-to-day workflow. It is important to follow protocol but just as important to exercise flexibility
  • Creating environments to enable effective communication. This includes having physical infrastructures like meeting or breakout rooms, and regular cadences for meetings (like daily stand-ups or weekly WIPs) to align all


Pillar #2: Tools

This deals with having the right tools to work efficiently and collaboratively. It involves

  • Enforcing use of consistent tool sets. Whether Adobe or Microsoft, Teamgantt or Asana, think about what works for intra- and cross-team collaboration
  • Scaling systems to create efficiencies. What can you automate or outsource to free up your designers to focus on more strategic, high-value work?
  • Sharing and expanding intelligence to build common ground. Whether trend reports or customer personas, make sure everyone has access to knowledge and everyone works off the same definitions
  • Using a digital asset management system. This is so design assets and templates can be shared and retrieved whenever, wherever
  • Making sure there is a clear naming structure for projects, files and folders. This is because easy identification and retrieval for current project and future ones can minimise stress and confusion for all


Pillar #3: Team coordination

This deals with the business aspect of design. It involves

  • Defining the role of design in the organisation. Take time to determine what you will do and what you won’t do. Such parameter setting ensures clarity,  capability and quality in delivery
  • Minding organisation structure. Ask yourself if you have the right hires. Are the reporting lines clear? Have you assembled a complementary and skills-complete team? You also need to know the team’s operating budget (HR, equipment, training, etc.)
  • Nurturing and developing team members. Have you designed career pathways for each role? How about consistent onboarding practices to set up new hires for success? Consider that having a high attrition rate or revolving door compromises efficiency and costs your organisation money
  • Prioritising and forecasting work. Do you use objective and consistent methods to prioritise projects? Do you understand individual and collective skills and capacity to allocate jobs? Have you rightsized your forecast to their knowledge, capability and bandwidth?


Pillar #4: Culture

This is a key element that keeps teams happy and healthy. It’s about creating a design culture and promoting that culture within the organisation. It involves

  • Defining design at your company. What is its value and impact? What role does it play?
  • Defining the metrics of success. Is everyone aligned with business and project goals?
  • Inspiring and motivating them
  • Practising good standards and cadences for design reviews. This is so outputs are executed to the highest quality
  • Establishing strong cross-functional partnerships. I can’t stress this enough: Breaking down team and discipline silos, and fostering strong relationships within and across teams are essential
  • Evangelising design. This means helping everyone in the organisation understand the value of good design, and socialising the design process to them
  • Cultivating the use of design activities by those outside the team. Because educating others and creating playbooks for them on how to use design tools themselves can help you avoid the design-team-as-bottleneck challenge. This allows you to scale


Who is in charge of Design Ops?

Many have asked, “Who manages Design Ops within an organisation?”. Well, it’s everyone and someone. Let me explain. Design Ops is both a role and a mindset. As a role, it rightfully sits in the Operations department, if your organisation has one. The Ops team typically deals with matters pertaining to process, infrastructure, budget, scalability, operational excellence, productivity and efficiency. Their job is to ensure that all necessary systems are in place for everything and everyone (including design and designers) to hum like a well-oiled machine. 

Next, will be the project managers. They must understand Design Ops to successfully move a project from initiation to completion, accounting for their project’s needs, quirks and goals. Project managers may not have much influence over structural stuff like overheads and training, but they certainly need to know how to work those to their advantage.

And then, of course, Design Ops as a mindset means everyone in the organisation has a part to play. Because it’s spans not just system, but also people and culture. The whole organisation must subscribe to the philosophy of Design Ops, and practise it. Only then can Design Ops succeed. And once Design Ops succeeds, so then can your projects, and, it follows, your organisation.

Success in Design Ops

Is this the impact you want?

With the proper implementation and enforcement of Design Ops, you’ll get outcomes faster with less casualties. Your staff will be able to enjoy job satisfaction; they can be more confident, are able to take on strategic work, and not burn out. Customers are happier; because you not only have a playbook that sets everyone on the same page, but you also prioritise effectiveness (not just efficiency) for them. Everyone’s engaged and plugged in. Virtual and otherwise. And I’m sure this is sweet sweet music to everyone’s ears. Not sure where to start? This field guide contains helpful tips to guide your staff as well as a compass to direct your organisation’s journey into Design Ops.

Remember, this is key to taking your organisation from Oops to Ops. It’s not surgery. It’s tactical advantage, and straight-up strategic business.


global pandemic creativity

2020 has brought a few unsavoury “c” words into our lexicon: Coronavirus, COVID-19, circuit breaker, to name a few. While everyone and their isolated neighbours brandish these words with whispered sighs and audible frustration, we should be wary about letting that other “c” word go down the proverbial toilet in 2020: Creativity. Just because the world is in lockdown doesn’t mean creativity should be. While we all adjust to a pandemic world, it’s even more important to prepare for a post-pandemic one.

Besides adding a few choice words into our cultural lingo, COVID-19 has certainly brought on tidal effects on industries and lives over the past few months. Certainly, this global pandemic has spread far and wide, impacting businesses, lifestyles and livelihoods on a global scale. And the world of advertising and marketing is not spared. Brands are gun-shy about spending, as companies collectively take a wait-and-see attitude in response to consumer confidence. And for months, there has been no telling which way the market will go, and when the market will show an uptick. And at time of this writing, that end is still not in sight.


Crisis: A liability or an opportunity?

Many creative and production agencies out there—digital, video, print, marketing, advertising—are feeling the hurt; not to mention freelancers who are also floating around looking for work, knocking on every door. Some agencies are quick to introduce response toolkits and marketing counsel for their clients. Others are forced to shift gears and finally embrace agile to cope with new processes and even newer ways of working. Yet others are forced to pivot work-in-progress advertising campaigns to more market-sensitive ones in record time.

However, some may not be so lucky, as work slows and teams scale back. For some Creatives, this may be the time to take a well deserved break. But after that initial wave of woohoos! and day drinking, catching up on past seasons of Black Mirror in your boxers, or virtual yogas and flicking through mindless TikTok videos… indeed, once the novelty of #WFH wears off, and you’ve finished all 5 seasons of Better Call Saul, we are starting to see a new creative class emerge from their man and woman caves, rubbing their once again puffy eyes, and asking themselves the question, “What next?”.


Creativity never takes a break, not even in lockdown

While work may take a break, creativity never takes a break. Not for the true Creatives anyway. This is where different types of Creatives emerge: Those who are creative by trade, or by life. In other words, Is creativity a job to you? A career? Or is it part of your DNA? For career and lifelong Creatives, this is not the time to slack. Because there’s never a downtime. They see inspiration everywhere, and simply have a need to express and produce. And to these folks, chink! chink! (yes, count me in on the day drinking).

So if you’re a Creative under lockdown and have nowhere to channel your energies, here are 5 things you can do to keep yourself juiced up, even when the market is down. Because the last thing you want is to circuit break your own creativity. The beauty in what we do is that our minds are never locked down or locked in. They are free to roam and wander. So if you take advantage of the downturn to double down and adopt the following tips, the better shape you will emerge when we come out of this on the other side.


1. Learn a new skill to increase your market value

Downtime is the best time to pick up a new skill.

The good news is, Creatives are more prized than ever before because we live in a creative economy. We have won a seat at the table, as they are so fond of saying. But with this privilege also comes expectation that we are simply in charge of (and need to do) much much more. We are involved in more aspects of communication. And many are struggling to cope with this new reality. But the real reality is, the more you know and the broader your skillset, the better you will cope.

Besides, picking up a new skill can help increase your market value. It will make you much more employable, and much less fire-able. Skill development after all, is a cornerstone to career progression. Companies are looking for serif-t Creatives these days. Are you that serif-t?

So…to designers who have yet to make that leap into digital...What are you waiting for!? If I can reach out and shake you, I would. No more excuses! Take the opportunity now during lockdown to tap the heck out of your Adobe CC subscription (which you’ve already paid for). Poke around Adobe XD, learn Adobe Dimension, take a crack at video editing, or tinker with After Effects. We live in the age of information. You can learn anything online. And there’s no time like today. For when the new “old normal” resumes, you likely won’t have the time again.



2. Be a master of your craft so you can do it better and faster

I know. Agency life can make us feel like we are running in a hamster wheel, with barely an opportunity to hit pause and level up on what we do. Nevertheless, it is important to keep your skills sharp and elevated. If your job requires you to, say, work with planners and developers on designing a website, you’ll want to think about what kind of knowledge you can plug into that’ll make that collaboration faster and easier—not just for yourself but for others. You’ll want to be thinking during this time about how else you can contribute to the thinking and solutioning, how you can lubricate the workflow, and how to position yourself as that MVP everyone wants to work with.

Not sure what is user experience? Find out! It can make your next web design project smoother and more successful. Heard about this thing called designing thinking process but not sure how it can improve your work? Well, learn! Curious about the art of brand storytelling? It can definitely elevate your creative solutioning and help you be more effective at selling in those world-class ideas later on. Always wanted to try chatbot writing, but never had the time? Now’s that time.

Hacks are part of mastering your craft too. Learn shortcuts and tools. And pick up apps that can make your life easier, and the workflow faster. All it takes is a bit of poking around the web, perhaps watch a few of those online tutorials, sit in on some Adobe webinars (they have evangelists whose job is just to work on and then show you shortcuts and hacks). Watch a few during lockdown, change your life forever. And that’s the real impact you should be making during this global pandemic. Because when the market picks up, you’ll want to be the first one out the gate.


3. Reflect on yourself to unleash your inner Kraken

Have a few moments more to spare? Why not spend it to reflect on what else is holding your creativity back? In other words, explore what may be preventing you from unleashing your inner Kraken. Might you have artistic or psychological biases that are putting you on repeat mode? Check them! Do you consider yourself a good designer but yearn to be more badass? Now’s a good time to find out how to be that great designer everyone wants to work with, and recalibrate. There are also tons of TED talks that are perfect for this occasion.

Not sure what those biases are, or feel you’re too close to get an accurate assessment? Simple. Ask a colleague, or your mentor, or your CD. Your house door may be closed, but your mind needs to be open. Invite others in. You’ll be surprised how much others are willing to help.


4. Contribute your gift to feel good about your gifts

Interestingly, COVID-19 has also brought out a different side of Creatives everywhere; if there’s an uptick to this global pandemic, it is the impact it has had on brands and designers. (Well, besides loss of income.) More than ever, we’re seeing designers, artists and brands showing solidarity, creating ads and posters that inform, educate and entertain. They are showing their human side. Besides PSAs, they are also creating things of cultural value, designing free swag and distributing them for free (looking at you, &walsh and that handsome new set of emojis). Everyone’s helping everyone express themselves during this time of crisis, and contributing their talents to mitigate our collective miseries as well as to elevate the human experience.

Such pursuits are not paid. Not financially anyway. But it will pay off in other meaningful ways. You earn goodwill, you get to feel great about adding to society in a time when everyone only knew subtractions, and it’s a great chance to practise what you do while waiting for other jobs to roll in. And when else can you create with complete freedom away from the remits of a client brief and budget?

So what will be your legacy from COVID-19? What will you create?


5. Play…play like there is a tomorrow

Another way to keep your creativity high is to simply play. Play opens up neural networks and stimulates creativity. Studies show that when we fully immerse ourselves in just doing what we enjoy—in other words, getting out of our own heads—it stimulates outside-the-box thinking and silences our inner critic.

So how do you play during lockdown? How about trying a new exercise routine? Or build something? Maybe start a new dance challenge online? I know of some designers who are doing virtual karaoke sessions together. Others are playing virtual mad libs. Perhaps pick up guitar. Or try your hand at baking. So go on, be a beginner in life all over again. Act like a kid! Approach your daily life with new eyes and curiosity. It’s one way to maintain our sanity, and rebalance our scales of creativity.


Come back swinging

Because that’s what you want to do when all this ends. Remember: The next time you’re thinking of making like a slug, don’t. Creativity, like your brain, is a muscle. The more your flex it, the more it will grow. Keep the engines greased. The time will come when you’ll be swinging back into action. And you’ll want to be swinging in full force, for the fences.

The global pandemic may have negative affect and impact on businesses and lifestyles, but let’s do what we can to make sure it doesn’t also impact our creativity, the industry and our collective ability to dream. That’s what makes us resilient. And we will just all have to be, well, creative about it.

Coke and Brand Storytelling

Storytelling is innate in all of us. Stories tell us our histories and of the world we live in. From early cave paintings to the oral and written traditions underpinning much of human civilisations and world religions. From Gilgamesh to Gutenberg, Shakespeare to Spielberg, stories are how we understand where we come from and figure our place in the world. And they are everywhere: Film, television, theatre, stand-up, books, news, the sermon you heard last Sunday, the dream you had last night, and the gossip you shared yesterday. We tell stories all the time. And if brands were to behave like a person, shouldn’t brands be in the business of storytelling too?


Why brands need to tell stories

It used to be that brands are about logos, advertising and visual identity. Now it’s so much more. It’s about purpose and meaning, experience and—yes—stories. From brand name and corporate videos to, well, every platform of communication, brands tell stories. It’s in their customer experience design (or CX) and every social media post they publish.

Coca-Cola does this especially well. From the iconic Hilltop to Small World Machines and Share a Coke, from California to India, from the 1970s to the 2010s, the brand has told a consistent story of sharing happiness and building connections. They’re successful at it because they are committed to using storytelling as a key marketing strategy. And they share timeless stories—about how we are more alike than different—that are timely and human. Just look at their ads. The focus isn’t on products and benefits, but on emotions couched in scenarios that are familiar to us, desired by us.


Not a gifted storyteller? Your brand needs you to be

Stefan Sagmeister famously said designers (or more accurately, rollercoaster designers) are not storytellers. There’s much I love about Sagmeister but I will have to disagree with him on this one. Not everyone is a gifted storyteller, but everyone tells stories. It’s like when people ask if I can sing. Of course I can. But you didn’t ask if I can sing well.

So yes, while not all designers are gifted at storytelling, all creatives do tell stories. (And yes, there is a distinction between designers and creatives.) And indeed you must engage in brand storytelling today, where audiences are demanding authenticity, purpose and connection, and nobody wants to be sold to. Stories provide a good pull strategy to attract customers into the fold, draw them into the conversation and, ultimately, into the universe that you will share with them. So can we all get better at brand storytelling? That too, indeed, we must.

So what makes stories so effective? Here are 5 reasons.


1. Storytelling communicates your brand’s view of reality to others

If you think about it, communication is about transmission of information. Information that customers don’t already have. And oftentimes, in the world of marketing, that information is designed to alter behaviour. It could be to change perception of a category (e.g., why go vegan), to sway preference between brands (e.g., why Coke and not Dr Pepper), to recognise a need (e.g., Alexa), or to act in some way (e.g., ask your doctor about hemorrhoid cream). And when we’re asking someone to change their perception or behaviour, story provides the context to aid understanding in a way that no other medium can. What makes this context so effective? One word: Emotions.

In coming out with stories to move people to action, don’t immediately look to your history, vision and aspirations to convey your worldview to others. Research shows that it is only when a story mirrors the emotions of the audience, when it becomes a shared experience, that a powerful connection is formed. Only when you’ve established that connection, can you be in a good position to influence and convince others of your worldview.

Mariah Carey got it:

So how do we account for this phenomena? This brings us to…


2. Storytelling has been scientifically proven to work

According to a New York Times article, stories stimulate the brain and have the power to change the way we act. There are numerous scientific research, and essays including this one, that show how the human brain is wired and “rewired” when listening to stories.

When we listen to stories, we engage in what is called neural coupling and mirroring. This allows us to see and experience those stories the way the speaker or message relayer did. (I suspect it’s because most people are empathetic creatures at the core.) When we listen to stories, our brain also releases dopamine into the system. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that helps us regulate movement, attention, learning and emotional responses; it is also responsible for our pleasure principles and can help us remember things up to 22 times better. This perhaps is also due to the fact that more areas of our brains are engaged when we listen to a story. As summarised in this infographic, stories help forge emotional connection and make information memorable.

Need more convincing? Consider the last time you went to the movies. They are all about the art of storytelling. For 2 hours or so, the story consumes us: We tear up when the music swells, cringe when the door creaks, and feel relieved when it turns out to be just that darned cat. Film school teaches directors, editors, scriptwriters the art of storytelling and emotional manipulation. Feel cheated? You shouldn’t be. After all, we pay money to get scared, to have a good laugh, to cry and be transported. We crave stories.


3. Storytelling humanises your brand

If you think about it, this is the basic requirement of how brands need to behave on social media too, because people want to relate to brands as people and not as faceless corporations. People want to know what the brand stands for, what its values are, and how it behaves in the world. They will then decide if these sync up with their personal values and desires. And brand storytelling can help you do that.

We see this play out often in advertising today. Take Tiger beer, for example. From the 1930s when they started through to the 1940s, they were—as with most adverts then—promoting health benefits (from increasing virility to improving fertility). From thereon, they focused their messages on award-winning formula (“gold medal”) and postwar exotica. And the message of winning has pervaded its ads through to the naughts (remember that Jessica Alba commercial?). Still very much about features and benefits (I mean, c’mon, Jessica Alba.). But in recent years, Tiger shifted its approach to a much more storytelling, emotionally-driven one.

According to Tiger, its Uncaged campaign is based on the brand’s story—its rise from a hawker centre beverage to a global brand, how it pushed against what is deemed impossible. That no matter where you start from, having courage, challenging conventions and defying expectations empowers you to achieve what you thought wasn’t possible before. It’s a story about pursuing your passion and making an impact. And they told this story through the lens of artists, technologists, chefs, designers and entrepreneurs. And these stories unfolded across multiple platforms: TVC, packaging, outdoor advertising, product packaging, events and activations. What these stories amount to was to humanise a brand. As this TVC showed, Tiger is just like you and me. 

They can no longer promise you children but at least they can promise you understanding and a shared value system. And isn’t that what we all want from our favourite brands?


4. Storytelling helps your brand stand out

In the age of Internet, this becomes even more difficult and necessary. Because today, it’s not enough to have a quality product or service, you need to know how to talk about it in a way that differentiates you from the crowd. Brand storytelling done well can help you win the battle for attention.

Consider “Generation Lockdown” from March For Our Lives. This public service announcement was released upon the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. And tragically, it feels like not a lot has changed when it comes to gun violence in the US and around the world. The shootings have continued.

It’s difficult to not think about Kayleigh (and the reactions of the employees) long after the video’s chilling final frame. 22 million views in 1 week. US$15 million in earned media. A winner of this year’s Cannes Lions. This video certainly has achieved the cut-through it needed by shooting an arrow right through our hearts. And it does so in the form of a girl schooling a bunch of adults what to do in the event of an active shooter, when it should be the other way around. It was timely, human, and emotionally resonant. What a story.


5. Storytelling helps you build brand communities

One of the most fundamental human needs is the need for belonging. We all want to belong—to our families, our societies, our teams. Wise brands tap into that universal desire by inviting people to participate in a larger story and giving them a shared identity. This marketing strategy underpins what you come to now know as KOLs, micro influencers and brand ambassadors. By watching the story of someone we admire and whose lifestyle and values we want to emulate, we feel a rush of aspiration and desire. And when we get to wear that badge on our sleeves, we identify.

Sports brands do this particularly well. Sports marketing is rife with brand ambassadorship. It’s aspirational and motivational. There’s nothing quite like having your heroes asking you to be part of their journey and community. But did you know that what we’ve all come to admire are not the athletes themselves but the stories of their struggles and triumphs? Consider this brand manifesto video by The North Face. They used it to build community, loyalty, pride and tribe among fans. As a viewer, you go, “That speaks to me” “That’s who I wanna be”. It’s certainly one way to build brand affinity with customers—and brand storytelling can help you achieve that. By making the brand real and resonant.


How will you tell your brand story?

Because they convey your personality and values, because they hit the emotional quotient, make your brand human and memorable, and because they help you build connection, community and loyalty, you must tell stories. Whether you are creating a brand, building a brand or reinventing one, you must consider the merits brand storytelling can bring to your marketing strategy.

What’s wonderful about the world of marketing now is we are dealing with integrated marketing communication (multichannel and omnichannel), where everyone’s focused on building relationships and not a sale. This means you no longer have to cram your storytelling into a print ad or a 30sec TVC. Digital and social give us all the capability to tell micro stories or chapters that pipe in to a larger story. Media buying technology even allows you to track customers and serve them the next episode of your story. You have the benefit of letting your story unfurl across time and platform: From TVC to social media, to activation to website, etc. The question isn’t whether you’re going to use brand storytelling but how you’re going to use it.

So what story will you tell?

The most important designer traits to survive change

How difficult is it to stay creatively energised after 10 years? For branding, design and advertising agencies…very. It used to be that we defined design by their eras: Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Modernism, Futurism, and so on. And each movement lasted a good several decades. But we now live in accelerated times. In the last decade alone, we’ve witnessed the ebb and flow of design trends like flat design, material design, skeuomorphism, 3D, liquid, brutalism, open compositions…and that’s just scratching the surface. Buzzwords like “Insta-worthy”, “Spotify” and “tumblr aesthetics” are even loosely referenced as design styles now. And then throw into this tornado terms like programmatic, design thinking, CX, UX, UI, AI, AR, VR, MR, hamburger menu, sausage links…and you’re truly headed for a tailspin.

You may then be wondering:

How do branding, advertising and PR agencies keep up if everyone is scrambling to level up: When everything we’ve learned in a year quickly turns archaic by the next; when there are avalanches of new design trends to master, new creative platforms to understand, new tools to pick up, new services to offer, and new generational quirks to decipher; or when timelines and margins are constantly squeezed as clients become more demanding? Indeed, when the enchantment with open beer taps and office plans wears thin, what’s left?

Agency burnout is a very real problem. And agencies are increasingly pulling back the Oz curtains to see that foosball tables and vending machines are but limp panacea to deeper problems that remain unsolved. In these times of accelerated change, increased pressure and demands, how can we not go crazy?

In commemorating 10 years of antics@play, I was asked to write about what we’ve accomplished, in terms of growing the team, evolving workflow, improving productivity and exporting culture. But rather than looking back, I thought I’d look forward, and instead share with you tips to navigate this mercurial industry without losing sanity and your creativity. Because through this decade of change, I’ve come to learn that not all designer traits are made equal. Some traits will help you succeed and thrive and stay creatively energised, even when vending machines fail and beers run dry.

Ready? Let’s go:


Creative pro-tip #1: Treat each day like it’s a new day

The key to being #10yearsunwiser is to be a shark: Always swimming forward, never back. The appetite to take risks, the gumption to try out new strategies, fearlessly mixing up tactics, convincing stakeholders, negotiating timelines, motivating ourselves, throwing 100% of ourselves out there for all to judge. It’s frickin tiring. What we do is mentally and emotionally exhausting. So not attending to your state of mental and emotional well-being is a sure-fire recipe for creative burnout. And no amount of mountaintop meditation can help (sorry, Draper).

Make your next masterpiece

But when you treat every project like it’s new, that’s 1 way of keeping your motivation high and you moving like a shark: Forward, engaged and ever-curious…always sniffing around for your next tasty morsel (or meal). When you approach each project like a clean slate – with the knowledge that your next big masterpiece is right around the bend – your day becomes filled with possibilities. I often say we are so lucky to be Creatives: We are blessed with the opportunity and power to make something out of nothing. What then do we do with this power? Every project is a chance for us to make a difference. Don’t let yesterday’s setback or disappointment rob your project of its – and your – potential. Instead, be fuelled by the challenge that each day brings. Be vitalised by the possibility that your new creative peak might happen today.

And really, do you want to be the 1 person to disagree with Oprah?


Creative pro-tip #2: Repeat after me – “A Designer designs, a Creative creates”

Designers should always think of themselves not as designers, but as Creatives. The term designer is particularly troubling. When designers think of themselves in those terms – graphic designer, web designer, product designer, interior designer – they immediately sell themselves short. Because clients don’t actually buy designs or products. They buy solutions that solve their communications problems. So – designers – when you think of your work as just “design”, you limit your worth and the value you bring. But when you think of yourselves as a Creative who creates, something magical happens. The horizon widens.

Be a creative not a designer

When you think of yourself as a Creative, you become tool-, knowledge- and scope-agnostic. You are not just pushing pixels at the butt end of a brief; but you are actively conjuring ideas, breathing life into them and shepherding them to fruition. You no longer are a cog in a wheel, but you are the wheel. You make the wheel. You rise above knowledge and theory and workflow. You birth something. And that – for Creatives – is worth everything.

Besides opening neural pathways to communications problem solving, having this mental identity shift also opens up opportunities for personal growth and career development. It’s why our Creative team at antics@play don’t just stop at graphic design, but get into areas like digital marketing, website analytics, video production, brand storytelling, etc. We don’t design for print, or packaging, or ads, or digital…but we create experiences and engineer encounters. Tools, platforms, designs…they are all means to an end. If you gun toward the end, and know that you are not a pitstop but the destination, it gives you ownership. And having this ownership and influence over the outcome of whatever you’re creating is incredibly empowering.

And with that empowerment comes resourcefulness. When you are destination-oriented, you hustle to make things happen. You will do whatever you need to get there. And when you hustle to make things happen, you necessarily become resourceful. You find new ways of doing things, new tools to exploit; whether Adobe Dimension or Character Animator or Cinema 4D…whatever you need to create that experience and tell that story. And that – for many – is what keeps interest up and inspiration high. You are not just responding to a brief – that’s not the end point. You are moving forward in your career.


Creative pro-tip #3: Aim for radical inclusion in your creative process

Not everyone has the chops to be a Creative (though they can be, given the right impetus, inspiration, environment, opportunities and interest…but that’s a lot of ifs). But everyone is a consumer, and that is a fact. Ideas can come from anyone and anywhere. Why is this important? Because when we tackle a communications challenge, it’s useful to not be territorial or egotistical about who comes up with the idea.

Radical inclusion in creative process

We’ve had planners come up with terrific headlines that went straight to market. Not because they uncovered the key insight or have a way with words but because they happen to be the target audience and can tell us what they need as a customer. After all, aren’t customers whom we design brands and advertising for? I’ve seen Creatives who are so precious about their ideas and process that they don’t let anyone in. And that’s just doing themselves a huge disservice. They walk away from reviews with a bruise on their ego and a chip on their shoulder. And who has time for that?

It’s no coincidence that the best Creatives in the world are also the most open. I’ve been lucky enough to meet many world-class practitioners at the top of their game, from Aaron Draplin to Debbie Millman. They’ve been at it for decades. They also happen to be some of the most humble and down-to-earth people you will ever meet. If you spend most of your time nursing your wounds, putting your fences up, swatting away feedback and telling yourself why your ideas are the best and why other’s aren’t, you are not spending your time expanding your horizons and generating solutions that customers need but churning out work that only you want.

But when you let other voices in, they can teach you things. You don’t have to agree with all of them. And they may not all be right. And that’s okay. Because, you see, the ideas – in and of themselves – are not the linchpin here. Ideas come and go, the real linchpin is you. And you’re here to stay. When you embrace inclusion, you give yourself the opportunity to become more open and empathetic. And empathy, as you know, is one of the most necessary traits you will need to thrive in design and survive the agency experience, not to mention deliver astonishing work. Which let’s face it, can be extremely motivating too.

So #10yearsunwiser? Let’s make it #20yearsevenmorefoolisher. And I hope everyone at antics@play past, present and future continue to embrace the spirit of innocence, humility, intelligent naivete, and wonder that characterise our daily work, that allows us to approach each day like it’s a playground full of possibilities and treat every job as a potential masterpiece. The market and the world will change. And us along with it. It’s how we manage our attitudes toward those change that keeps us invested for the long haul. And that is the real capital that drives us and our industry forward.

It’s no surprise that 2017 pitches us marketers and designers further deeper into the digital conundrum, or as I like to call it, the digital black hole. Cuz you never know how far it goes. And just when you think you’ve got it pinned, a new wormhole opens to make you feel like Alice. But this much is true: Businesses and enterprises are all getting hitched to the digital bandwagon, and getting pitched by technologists and vendors to adopt digital across functions and processes. The market certainly has no lack of automation tools that promise productivity and analytics subscriptions that tease data nirvana and precision marketing. And increasingly, we’re all sold. Or convince ourselves that to, keep up, we have to be sold.

We’re a quarter into 2017, and have already seen these digital trends bubble and, well, trend. And safe to say, there will be more to come. So what does this mean for the modern-day creative? At a time where digital marketing has become nearly synonymous with marketing, what does it bode for offline designers tasked with developing better online shopping experiences, or to drive traffic and higher conversion rates for websites; or for CDs who have to underpin and sell effective brand building strategies to clients who expect the first words rolling off their tongue to be “digital”?

Creativity used to be about imagination, made sexy by the spectre of the unknown and the mysterious…romanticised by writers, painters and rockers whose accelerators are drugs, alcohol, muses and demons. Who draws inspiration from nature, music, hallucinations, stories, experience, innocence. Whose ability to access the unknown and tap into our collective ids make them revered and admired, perhaps even feared. Does this still ring true for the modern-day creative? Have muses been replaced by Google Analytics, and paintbrushes by pixels? Have daydreamers been supplanted by Dreamweaver? More alarmingly to our profession, can anybody with access to a well-designed machine/device/software do our jobs now? Already we’re seeing photography being co-opted by (insert name of any random person you know here), thanks to mobile cameras and photo editing apps; and that has sent the photography profession into a tizzy. And for wannabe writers, with access to tools like EMV Headline Analyser, Keyword Researcher or Grammarly, they can churn out reasonably effective copy for their blogs. So where does all this leave photographers, writers and designers who do these for a living? It’s not only machines and automation we have to deal with now, but we also have to contend with people with access to softwares and machines that are increasingly co-opting our livelihoods.

Among the industry, we have been seeing 2 camps: Those who embrace the future of how people design will find themselves more employable, and those who continue to romanticise the past and hope to find that niche of employability (or pray for another Y2K, whichever comes first) will struggle more and find their market value erode. And boy, you don’t want to be in the 2nd camp.

For those who are still in it to win it, here are 4 pieces of advice that will make you a relevant and vital creative today, and to find new joy in what you do:


1. Go multi

Digital and data underpin the engine behind omnichannel marketing or multi-channel branding, which are dominating the design practice these days. It pools together multiple data points across a customer’s purchase funnel to give you a more complete picture of who your customer is, and how you should be speaking to this customer at each point of the journey, from awareness to consideration to decision (and beyond).

This means that as a creative, you can no longer design in silos. Offline designers cannot just design for offline channels but must think about how offline complements online, and what visual information needs to be served on which platform, when and how. But don’t stop there. Instead, go one step further and co-op online designs. The more adept you are at designing across platforms (including website, email, social, app, etc.), the more control you will have over your design, rather than pass it off to another designer or agency to complete your vision.

Another positive to being a multi-channel designer is that you will have a wider spectrum of platforms to communicate your campaign idea and brand message. Information can be more spread out yet more focused (cuz we all know how you hate those ridiculous briefs that require you to squeeze everything into your design…and still make the logo 30% bigger). This way, information can be more relaxed across channels, and more targeted at each stage of the customer journey.

But worried that you know nuts about digital design? Just flashback to the days when you first learned design or print production, or editing, whatever…. When all you had was curiosity and a desire to learn. It’s the same thing.


2. Embrace digital tools

Digital allows us to churn out real-time insights. And data moves quickly. You probably already know that social and search platforms like Facebook and Google algorithms and advertising units change all the time. And customers expect content on demand. But we all recognise that time is finite. There will always be deadlines and nobody likes working overtime. Good thing too, there is help in the form of softwares and digital tools, that can help us meet deadlines and colleagues for happy hour.

For creatives making the transition to digital, there are many softwares that make web and mobile design a snap. No coding needed. But for those with an appetite to pick up programming, you should definitely go for it. Knowing programming certainly opens up a whole new world of digital technical wizardry and arms you – again – with more control over your design vision and go beyond bootstrapped sites to achieve more unique solutions. But for those whose eyes instantly glaze when encountering code and go into a panic attack in the face of words like “UX” and “programmatic”, you needn’t worry. There are many very good web design softwares and prototyping tools like Adobe Muse and Wix that allow you to design very beautiful and high performing sites without knowing a lick of code. Start there.

Beyond website creation, learn to adopt digital tools and softwares as part of your workflow too. These can let you work remotely (where you can network and access real-world inspiration), reduce design time by collapsing repetitive steps through automation, publish social content more quickly through dynamic templates, and so on. Digital and mobile have made these very possible. The days of the deskbound designer creating everything from scratch have gone the way of the dinosaur. Tedium has given way to technical shortcuts and agility. But does this mean you can no longer achieve differentiated designs, since everything seems templated and “lazy”? Of course not. Which brings us to…


3. Spend more time thinking, less time designing

Yes, it sounds counter-intuitive, but designers really need to spend more time thinking and ideating, and less time designing. Even more so in this era of machine learning and creative democracy, where the true value of creativity – and what clients will pay for – lies in the ideas and the thinking. It’s how you stand out.

It becomes necessary then for you to be the conduit between reams of data (input) and creative outcomes (output). That’s where magic can still happen. Make that magic happen! Embrace data, and harness your skills to think more closely and mindfully about who you’re designing for, and the purpose and objective of each communications platform. The more successful creative workers are the ones who insert themselves into the top of the creative funnel, who drive the thinking and back up their designs with responsible research and data, and who connect the dots to better speak to the customers. And of course, the right amount of inspiration (or for some, vodka) will certainly move things very nicely along.


4. Keep an open mind

Digital can be confusing, scary, intimidating. I love robots and sci-fi so the thought of machine learning and AI don’t scare me as much. But numbers…I quake at numbers. But as much as I hate numbers and learning new tools, I love my happy hours. And to protect my happy hours, it becomes necessary for me to embrace numbers and make digital my weapon and analytics my b****.

As creatives grappling with this new world order, there is a lot to learn and understand and be curious about. But the heart of this digital black hole strikes at the core of why we are creatives in the 1st place. We are excited by wonder, we have a hunger to make new stuff and charter new grounds, we hope to get others excited about the things we create, and to make them think a little bit differently about their reality. Once you overcome your fear of the unknown (or at least face it head-on) and plunge into the rabbit hole, it’s probably terrifying and exciting. And if you’re lucky, you will enjoy them both in equal measures. And it will pay off.

I hear there is a Matrix reboot afoot at Warner Bros. I love the original film, which gave me whiplash (in a good way). Those who watched it inevitably had the red pill/blue pill conversation afterwards. Personally, I’ve always found the red pill sexier. I would pop that in a heartbeat. Not only because it allows me to then do all kinds of kung fu badassery, but also because it takes me on a crazy adventure, and gives me the weapon and information needed to effect change on the world by working the system and by creating my own rules. The message spoke to my creative heart, and I’m sure, did the same to many other creatives too. Today, I can’t help but think how prescient that movie was and continues to be. I am eager to see the reboot and what the makers make of this digital conundrum.

So you’ve decided to rebrand. Terrific! Where do you begin? Let us give you an insider’s guide to help you along. There are enough articles out there that tell you what you must do. We thought we’d take a different track by pointing out pitfalls that can potentially derail your project. Ready? Great, let’s go!


DON’T: Assume you know it all

You’re the business owner. You’ve probably been steering its growth for the past 20 years to some (or great) success. You also probably think no one knows your customers better than you do, or that you have a deeper understanding of your industry than a brand consultant. This is likely very true, but also the wrong attitude to take.

Most successful business owners I’ve worked with take a humble approach to their business. Their secret sauce: Being open and always questioning. They don’t assume they know it all. Regardless where their business life cycle is at, they recognise the benefit of having an impartial 3rd-party come in and be the alternate voice to give it a jumpstart or shake things up. The business owners we work with are almost always surprised by new insights our research yields, or when we challenge and provoke them to think of their business and customers differently. Their world to a new reality opens up.

So the lesson is this: Regardless how well you think you know your business, there’s always merit in investing in research and having an objective voice to bust previously held myths, question what you hold dear, and explore new opportunities that have become blindspots. This objective voice provides the needed impartiality and outsider perspective unencumbered by baggage or sentimentality. Rebranding can reward you with fresh perspectives and opportunities. Research is the best place to start.


DON’T: Make your brand personal

This is a challenge for SME owners especially. Particularly when it comes to brand identity. We have come across entrepreneurs whose 1st instruction to us is: You can change everything but please don’t touch the logo. This goes back to what I touched on earlier: Sentimentality. Their reasons: “I designed this myself when I started the company. It holds a very special place in my heart”, “Our staff and customers have gotten used to it”, “My friend designed it for free 3 years ago…I don’t want to appear ungrateful”, etc. We’ve also heard things like “You can change the logo but please keep the colour…I really like the colour”; or clients who say they are “open” but will always steer the choices back to where they started (“I still like my original colour better”).

Branding deals a lot with sentiments, but not sentimentality. The thing to remember is that you’re designing a brand for your customers, not for yourself. What works for you may not work for the customer. It’s important to make a distinction between the 2; take yourself and your personal preferences out of the equation. The question to ask is this: Who are you trying to attract with your rebranding project? Your customers…or yourself?

That said, we always encourage business owners to not accept a logo they cannot stand to look at daily. But we also ask them to assume the persona of their customers and judge the logo through those lenses instead. Will it resonate and create better engagement? Sometimes having a “cooling off” period helps too. Some clients come back with a fresh perspective once they’ve slept on it, talked to a few people about it (e.g., business partners or long-time customers), rather than having a knee-jerk reaction at the point of presentation and commit to a direction clouded by personal temperament.


DON’T: Do the rebranding all by yourself

Building a brand is a massive undertaking. Even if you’re doing it with an agency. There are information the agency needs. They may require access to your sales, marketing, HR and finance teams.  Some might want to have conversations with your customers and staff. Others might find it useful to conduct an audit of your past marketing and sales materials; and so on. As a business owner, your attention is likely split and you’re running a mile a minute; and the agency simply can’t do a good job when their level of access is limited, or if they’re busy spending time chasing you down for an audience than doing actual work.

Instead, you may want to assemble a project team for your rebranding project. Appoint trusted PICs with whom the agency can liaise or run some decisions by, so the project doesn’t come to a screeching halt when you’re indisposed. Once this is in place, you just then need to set aside periodic pockets of time and avail yourself for crucial checkpoint meetings with both your agency and your PICs.

Besides these very sensible reasons, there are benefits to involving staff in your rebranding exercise for softer HR reasons too. Building a brand is exciting and fun; and it is a journey. Done correctly, it can be a rallying point to improve staff morale and engagement as well. When you bring staff along for the ride, you not only fold in their functional concerns along the way, but you also draw them closer to the brand you will eventually build by giving them a sense of ownership and participation in the process. In so doing, you build not only a brand but also community, stewardship and staff loyalty.


DON’T: Stop at brand identity when rebranding

This is a mistake many SME branding rookies make. When they think branding, they think “logo”. Some may understand that it’s also about colours; maybe some will extend their branding reality to include also typography and how the logo relates to the whole identity system. (Or more specifically, a visual identity system.) So you may be thinking, They understand the importance of brand identity…what’s wrong here?

What many business owners need to understand is that a brand goes way, way, way further than a logo or brand identity design guidelines. It’s about so much more: Product strategy, pricing strategy, distribution strategy, partnership strategy, HR policy, marketing strategy, customer experience strategy, and how are you going to tell these stories. You need to approach branding as a package. Branding is a way of conduct, a way of being (not just seeing)

So when you’re thinking about rebranding, don’t commission just a logo or identity system. That’s just cosmetics and can only get you so far. Rather, you want to think more strategically: What the brand means to your business, your customers, your industry; and what’s the impact it can make. You want put in place a brand strategy to bring the brand to life. Which brings us to…


DON’T: Let nature take its course

Brand building is long term, and takes effort. Launching a brand is but the tipping point. Whether the rebranding is successful or makes an impact to your bottomline will depend on what you do after you’ve launched the brand.

So what do you do? First, recognise that a brand cannot grow organically. It needs constant steering and guardianship against brand guidelines and set strategy. Just as you wouldn’t stop tending to your baby once it’s birthed, or deny her an education and healthcare, you cannot abandon your brand once it’s launched. You need to continually nurture it, feed it, give it the right stimulation, environment and guidance to ensure healthy growth. And providing the right conditions for growth demands you to be ruthlessly strategic.

What does this mean? It means that you must be prepared to take a long, hard look at your business and make the necessary adjustments in line with strategy. This could include reevaluating the kinds of products and services you offer, reexamining your pricing and distribution structures, investing in new production techniques (maybe), educating and motivating your staff to live the brand values, working out an annual marketing budget and then putting it into play, putting an agency on retainer to deliver on-brand communications (if you’re not confident of doing it yourself), etc. It means not making excuses not to do certain things, or putting off marketing and brand building efforts until you have time. (Your baby would’ve starved to death!) So, be a responsible brand parent!


A rock solid brand can do many things: Let you stand for something in the market, establish an emotional connection with your customers, give you a price advantage…you can even use brand to shape product strategy (as it should) and define a formula for growth (as it should also). That being said, you must be prepared to stick to that formula and put whatever you can to ensure its success. Successful branding doesn’t happen overnight. It takes patience, and the necessary investments to make it work.

At this point, you may think rebranding sounds like a lot of work. Well, it is. But as a hoary saying goes, It’s not work when you’re enjoying it. And branding and marketing work is a lot of fun! The golden rule is not to think of it as work, but as a commitment to making it work.