ethical AI in marketing

Interest in AI is at fever pitch. This is all thanks to ChatGPT, Dall-E 2, Google AI, Meta AI and Bing AI, among others. Promises are plenty, stumbles are frequent, yet anticipation for where it will all land remains high. For an industry that fetishises speed, scale, efficiency and automation, what’s not to like about AI? It helps us do so much, so quickly. But have we considered the weighty topic of ethical AI in marketing? In other words, the ethics of using AI in what we do; and what it means to our industry as well as to us as practitioners? Before we rush with unbridled zeal to play with the latest shiny new toy, let’s take a moment to first consider some thorny questions. Doing so may inform how we use AI in marketing.

TBH, marketers have been using AI for a while now. But its potential has recently become exponentially seductive in view of what OpenAI has introduced to the market. In the months since, we’ve seen an encroaching commodification, commercialisation and widespread adoption of AI, and all this is making issues of ethics and potential misuse even more glaring. So if you are already using this technology or considering widening your use of it, this article’s for you.


Applications of AI in marketing

So how are we using AI in marketing now? Communication of information, for one. AI technology plays an increasingly important role in the processing, curation and provision of content. This includes news, social media and search engines. They do so based on our search history, the kind of content we interact with, who we interact with, and our professed interests. AI is what drives the engine behind search marketing, recommendation algorithms (the ubiquitous “You may also like” and “Because you watched…”), and also why marketers are obsessed with keyword tagging and targeting.

Another common use of AI in marketing, particularly among creatives, is in stock image/footage/music search. AI has progressed to the stage where you can simply drag a piece of content into the search box and the engine will surface similar content of interest to you. This certainly has helped sped up workflow and the creative process. And for creatives always struggling with deadlines, it’s like manna from heaven.

Adobe has in recent years also endeared themselves to the creative community when they introduced Adobe Sensei, which uses AI and machine learning to simplify and automate creative workflows. The tool makes manipulating videos and photos much easier. Erasing unwanted elements from multimedia can be done with a couple of clicks now; achieving photorealistic effects is also just as breezy. Beyond creatives, marketers use Sensei (among other martech platforms) to zero in on customer data to predict behaviour, to better target, and then to deliver personalised content to them. All in the name of providing customers with a better brand experience. Generative AI allows them to do so at scale.


And speaking of generative AI…

Marketers are now losing their minds over Open AI’s double whammy: ChatGPT and Dall-E 2. The former is an AI chatbot capable of writing blog articles, video scripts, ad copy, white papers and other text-based content, based on instructions entered by the user; while the latter is an AI system that creates images and art from keyword prompts. Similar AI systems that generate videos, music and audio are also now blazing up the charts and into the marketer’s vernacular.

And of course there’s the old chestnut, the chatbot–one of the earliest examples of AI in marketing. The first wave of excitement upon launch a few years ago was soon followed by a wave of disenchantment when customer experience proved subpar. But yet marketers aren’t one to argue with numbers and speed: There were discernible gains in efficiencies and reductions in operational overheads. And through machine learning, neural networks and deep learning, chatbots have since become more sophisticated and the initial wave of criticisms ebbed. Today, Siri and Alexa are omnipresent, as are chatbots on multiple brand websites.

These all sound great. So what’s the fuss over AI ethics?


Lawful use versus ethical use of AI

Ethics goes beyond what is lawful. For example, an AI algorithm that effectively manipulates people to engage in a particular behaviour may be legal but unethical. Alcohol companies collecting personal data of teens on social media and then targeting those who frequently look up alcohol content–exposing them to more alcohol ads to encourage impulse buying–may not be unlawful but certainly does not represent ethical AI. In many countries, laws and regulations are insufficient to ensure ethical use of AI. 

In Nov 2021, the 193 Member States at UNESCO’s General Conference adopted the pioneering Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence. The paper intended to not only protect but also promote human rights and dignity. It is meant to be an ethical guiding compass to users and practitioners on the responsible use of AI. Yet, a recent Pew Research study indicates that by 2030, a staggering 68% users think public good will not be employed in most AI systems. It’s a bleak scenario. What went wrong?


So what is ethical AI in marketing?

Ethical AI considers the full impact of AI usage on all stakeholders within an industry ecosystem. In marketing, we’re talking everyone from consumers, customers and suppliers to employees and society as a whole. It seeks to prevent potentially bad, biased and unethical uses of AI, ensuring usage is fair and responsible, even transparent.

Organisations that apply ethical AI have clearly stated policies and well-defined review processes. Some make it a point to inform users of the use of their data in AI applications. But many don’t. While now we’re seeing 45% of companies defining an ethical charter to provide guidelines on AI development; it remains that the number of organisations that informed users about the ways in which AI decisions might affect them have been seeing a year-on-year drop. Which makes the use of AI in marketing a territory still fraught with ethical landmines. As an industry, are we doing enough? Besides peddling alcohol to teens, what are other examples of unethical use of AI you can think of? Are you complicit?


Considerations for ethical AI in marketing

Left unchecked, AI can potentially spread disinformation, misinformation, hate speech, deception, discrimination and human abuse. It can limit freedom of expression, retard the emergence of new societal narratives, infringe upon human privacy, arrest human rights, and dull media and information literacy, among other issues. How?


1. AI can propagate biases

As a society we are already struggling with issues of identity, equity, equality and representation. While some organisations and brands are gaining ground getting on board the DEI gravy train in their handling of diversity and inclusion, there’s still so much more marketers can do. There’s so much more ground we have yet to cover. When you have something like generative AI trawling historical content to surface new content today, it is merely reproducing past discrimination and perpetuating historical biases (and let’s face it, there’s plenty). This is how bias in AI marketing algorithm gets even more biased. Surely a spiral we cannot be participant to.

So instead of asking “Should we use ChatGPT?”, marketers might do well to ask “What do we want to leave as legacy?”. In your attempts at storytelling, what stories are you inadvertently telling for posterity? Should we let AI do its thing, or should we focus our energies toward creating new DEI-positive content for future AI to learn from?


2. AI can groom us for specific behaviours

With the power of AI concentrated in big tech, another question we should ponder is, What does this mean to cultural and social behaviours? Think about a world where an increased concentration of supply of cultural content, data, markets and income are in the hands of only a few agentsnamely, Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft; all dominant players in the field of AIwith potentially negative implications for the diversity and pluralism of languages, media, cultural expressions, participation and equality. If we are already uncomfortable with the new economic order of surveillance capitalism, behaviour control and conditioning by the Big Five (or any company, for that matter), imagine a world where this is exponential.


3. AI and the intellectual property conundrum

When a platform like Dall-E 2 amalgamates artwork from various sources, it may not know if it’s infringing upon the intellectual property rights of the sources’ original creators, nor does it care. As a user of AI, do you? Fact is, generative AI platforms are currently not rigged to observe the 3 ‘C’s of copyright: Consent, compensation and credit. And the reason copyright law was created in the first place was to offer creators the assurance that the law would protect their interest should anyone attempt to ‘copy’ their work.

So this is where things get murky. AI-generated content may be largely seen as original work, “inspired” by other sources, made somewhat unrecognisable in its original form through a series of manipulation. While most creatives develop artwork based on either rights-managed content, or commit a style to memory and then mimic or interpret it, having fragments of the original work forming the actual basis of your work (as it’s wont to in AI, where it’s all 1s and 0s) begs the question: How much change is change enough to violate the 3 ‘C’s? As a marketer, where do you stand on this issue? And as we’ve already established, where laws can’t reach, ethics might.

(Tidbit: The US Copyright Office has declared that AI-generated art is not entitled to IP protection. Why? Because it lacks the “nexus between the human mind and creative expression” necessary to invoke copyright protection.)


4. AI can fake it till you buy it

You must’ve heard of deepfakes. We’ve all seen it, laughed over it, been entertained by it, maybe even fooled by it. A portmanteau of “deep learning” and “fake”, it has been much (ab)used in the entertainment and media industries today. Practitioners use it to create child sexual abuse material, celebrity sex videos, revenge porn, fake news, hoaxes, bullying and financial fraud. And none of these sound like something a marketer would want to touch with a 10-foot pole. But would you take the likeness of someone without their consent to create a beautiful ad or TVC? Well, some companies already have. 



The ethical responsibility of AI users in marketing

So what is the ethical responsibility of AI users in advertising or marketing? How can we be more responsible as a cohort? Well, pondering the ethical dilemmas of AI is a good place to start. Think about where you stand. Think about not just profit making but also social control (in a human-centered, DEI-positive way). Prize not just speed and scale but also the integrity of the creative process. Let’s think about what it means to be human, to be productive, to exercise free will. Then think also about transparency and accountability in AI marketing. Understand your company’s policies and stance. If your company doesn’t yet have guidelines, workflow or a charter for AI ethics, develop one.

Even as AI evolvesas I’m sure it willso should we. Let’s be responsible marketers who continually examine our biases and are conscientious about what we feed the future. Let’s be marketers who make human-robot interactions intentional and meaningful, relating to them as a collaborator rather than a quick salve. (Perhaps a better use of ChatGPT can be for research, education and inspiration rather than content creation, i.e., use it as a starting point rather than an ending one?) Let’s be marketers who consider fundamentally what we do marketing for–(pure) profit? or the betterment of society?

Everyone’s now asking what can AI be. I feel the better question to ask isn’t what AI can be to marketing, but what kind of marketers we want to be.

Avatars are coming to a screen near you, and I’m not talking about blue-skinned aliens at your local cineplex. With the encroaching web3, the rising popularity of the metaverse, the widespread adoption of NFTs and the accelerated maturing of technology, avatars are getting not only more omnipresent but also more sophisticated in use, function and design. When was the last time you saw an avatar that gave you pause? Ready or not, we’re gonna expect a lot more popping digital identities in the coming year.

First things first, let’s get definitions out of the way. Your selfie (no matter how fly) on your WhatsApp profile doesn’t qualify as an avatar. Neither does a holiday snap on your Facebook cover page.


So what qualifies as an avatar

Children of the 90s, avatars started not as blue aliens in James Cameron’s fabled movie, but they originated in video games long before that. Wherein players select the character they most wanted to be (or whom they think will inflict the most hurt on opponents), assumed that character within the universe of the storytelling and gameplay, and then proceeded to start a finger war with either the machine or other players. We’re talking Johnny Cages and Chun Lis, Super Marios and Luigis. And lots and lots of wasted afternoons.

video games


So what is a web3 avatar? By most definitions, avatars are a digital representation of ourselves in the virtual world. So while your selfies are technically-speaking pixels and therefore a digital representation, I still will not allow the definition. Instead, we’re talking about wholly created representations of ourselves in the digital realm. (But as we will find out soon enough, that definition is about to change too.) They may or may not look like us. And they range in degree of sophistication, realism and lifelikeness. If we don’t like a menu of characters, clothes, motions or expressions available? No problem, it’s easy to create one from scratch using personalised avatar creators and then punch it up with a plethora of plugins. Don’t know code? No problem, many are low code or no code.


The purpose of avatars

As digital doppelgangers in the virtual world, avatars are our proxy for when we engage in activities within the digital domain. This includes playing games, communicating with others, doing work, having meetings, attending events, exploring new places, shopping, browsing, exercising, making transactions, making new friends, showing off, showing up, hanging out and helping others out. With the crazy technology that is web3, anything we can do in the real world, our digital twin can do in the virtual world.

Because the metaverse is a social environment that thrives on a currency of exchange and user interaction, participants need to manifest themselves as a character within that particular space to partake in the experiences available and to be able to interact with others. If you want to partake in the metaverse economy, you must take avatars seriously.


Types of avatars

Due to its decentralised nature, different companies can have different manifestations and implementations of the avatar system in web3. We’re talking about identity design especially in the metaverse. So while every avatar shares some core characteristics across different systems, there are nevertheless much variations that can be built individually.

By and large there are 4 broad types of avatars today.


1. 2D avatars

2D avatars

These were the very first types of avatars in video games and in the metaverse. They’re essentially a flat representation of the user, and exist mostly in 2D environments. Think of Street Fighter or Gather.


2. 3D avatars

3D avatars

In time, 2D gave way to 3D, timed perfectly to consumer embracement of augmented reality and 360-degree content. Immersion being the operative word, these avatars typically take the form of fully articulated humanoids that can be viewed from multiple angles. They usually incl. astounding details for hair, skin tone, accessories and clothes. Many are available as NFTs too.


3. Half-body avatars

Half-body virtual avatars

These are a type of 3D avatar that is typically depicted from a 1st-person point of view (like in VR, where you look out from the character’s perspective). And because you hardly see the full body in VR, developers decided to do away with the bottom half of the body altogether, rendering them “legless”. The intent being to reduce system requirements and account for any lack of leg sensors on VR systems anyway. What is not needed, isn’t built. However, what they didn’t account for was the fact that you are still seeing other legless people, which can be disorienting and take you out of the narrative. As such, we’re seeing less and less of these half-body avatars today.


4. Full body avatars

full-body virtual avatars

Instead we’re seeing more full body avatars, which is the most sophisticated form today. Typically VR-ed, makers use sensors to recreate the user’s entire body in the metaverse fully. This yields a full range of movement and makes it easy for the user to interact with digital assets in the virtual world. Advanced VR games typically use this system, and reportedly, so will Meta. The more advanced of avatars will even leverage machine learning and AI to continue interactions even while you’re offline.



Characteristics of avatars

With so many variations, what then do we consider “good” avatar design? By good, I’m not referring to the aesthetics or visual appeal of an avatar, but its functional efficiency. Here are some key traits good avatar designs should have:


1. Interoperability

As the metaverse is not one consolidated real estate but comprising different systems and platforms, the question you’ll want to ask of your avatar is: How far can it travel? Does your avatar contain a “digital passport” that allows it to travel from The Sandbox to Decentraland? So when designing your own avatar, make sure you can move it around different systems so you can experience different metaverse environments while still being “you”. Why waste that popping Balenciaga bomber jacket investment when your swag can’t be seen by everyone?


2. Customisability

Most avatar makers will offer some degree of customisation. Their menu typically range from skin tones to face shapes, hairstyles and hair colour to accessories like glasses, hats and even apparel. Some even feature instant looks. Want to be a B-Boy? Voila! Tinkerbell? It’s as easy as the press of a button. This sort of customisation is great. It lets people choose the personality or look or mood and identity they most resonate with. Such flexibility and customisability represents a major win for DEI (diversity, equality and inclusion) and identity politics; not to mention, it makes the metaverse so much more colourful.


3. Swaggability

Some avatar creators go over and beyond the standard menu of customisation, and make themselves “open platform”, allowing for NFT component integration. This means you can purchase or win unique apparel and accessories for your avatar. A floating wheelchair like Professor X’s? Why not. Flaming Reeboks? Mais oui! Good avatars allow for add-ons to help you stay fly and swaggy, and terribly in season and on point.


How to build your own avatar

So how can you go about building your digital identity in web3? If you’re ready to join in the fun, here’s a handy guide. Below are some of the best personal avatar creators out there. For purpose of streamlining, I’ll leave out brand- or platform-specific avatar makers (like Gucci, Nikeland, or Roblox) but instead focus on platform-agnostic ones that give you the passport to roam, customise and swag.



OSUVOX was one of the 1st metaverse implementations focused on interoperability, using a metaverse avatar NFT system. Its portal gives users the freedom to not only modify the appearance of their avatar, but to easily use it on many other systems. Some enterprising users have even used this platform to create avatars and then selling them on OpenSea as NFTs.



The Zepeto avatar creator makes it easy for users to replicate their facial features, and then give them plenty of options to change up their face, eyes, hairstyle and fashion. This means you can be yourself or a totally different person from one day to the next. Many of the options are free, but with a fee you get so much more. For obvious reasons, catfishers love this.


Ready Player Me

Ready Player Me is all about ease of use and plug and play. This also makes it one of the most popular. The brains behind it have gone out of their way to make it easy for not just the layperson but also for developers to use. This has resulted in over 1,000 apps, games and programs compatible with Ready Player Me avatars.



Besides being a multi-platform avatar creator, Tafi comes with a substantial 3D content library and an out-of-the-box monetisation engine for in-game and in-app purchase. You can use it to dress up and decorate your digital twin with branded items from global names, incl. DC Comics, Coca-Cola and Champion.


Deep Motion

Besides fashion, you can swag up your avatar with motion design. Deep Motion is an AI-driven, motion capture (both full body and face) solution that makes your avatar pop off the screen.



What’s next for avatars

Besides controversies? A lot! While concerns and debates about catfishing, authenticity and ethics of an AI avatar outliving your mortal coil rage on, there is still a lot of good stuff to be excited about. Increasingly, not just consumers but also brands and companies are getting in on the action. Abetted, no doubt, by the ease of entry and democratisation of technology.

Besides that digital influencers like alt-pop band Gorillaz have become huge pop culture sensations and celebrity brand ambassadors for fashion labels, we’re seeing traditional modelling agencies now also rushing to launch avatar divisions where brands can hire avatars of real-life models for virtual fashion shows, shoots and appearances.

Gorillaz fred perry

Soon too, avatars will appear not only in virtual environments but also in our offline world. Blackpink and Selena Gomez used their avatars for a dance performance music video that raced up the YouTube charts. Onstage, ABBA staged a comeback concert with their digital avatars in 2022, while Tupac pulled a similar one-two punch at Coachella. In fashion, H&M is using Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams’s avatar as spokesperson in a global ambassadorship campaign.

Seeing as how our online and offline lives are more and more blended and enmeshed, the future of experiences is increasingly liminal too. And that future is propelled by you, me and our avatars. Where will yours live? Online, offline, or both?


social media web3

Web3 must be the social butterfly’s worst nightmare. And undoubtedly also the marketer’s. For many years now, brands have struggled to keep their head in the social media marketing game. The better and more successful ones have kept themselves ahead of trends, controversies and legislations, driving content, conversations and conventions. The rest of the world followed. But web3 seems to be one of those digital black swan events that threaten to wipe the slate clean, and level the playing field for all, including when it comes to social media.

With the dawn of web3, how we socialise with one another on digital platforms will change. How brands and customers converse with each other will also change. What’s the social media marketer then to do? What are the opportunities and pitfalls that lie in wait?


Ready? (Web) 1, 2, 3 Go!

Web3 (aka Web 3 aka Web 3.0) is the latest incarnation of the www as we know it. Here’s a quick primer on the evolution of web1 to web3, and what each age means. I’ve had the privilege to live through all 3 ages. Does that make me an authority on this? Hardly. Remember when web2 first started and marketers were abuzz with theories and debates on this thing called “new media” at seminars and conferences? I do. I’ve attended a few. At one particular conference, a moderator had asked her panel comprising media strategists and marketing experts, “Do you think social media is here to stay?” Every one on the panel was quick to beam a smile and said, “Yes”. I offered a “Uhhhh….No.”

That was 15 years ago. And how I’ve since been proven wrong…-ish. The social media scene had indeed blossomed. Many platforms have flourished and spawned babies and imitators; but with just as many closing shop as quickly as they had arrived (remember Vine? Adios Tumblr!). The world has indeed become more connected; but in many ways it has also become more disconnected. Pop culture is filled with stories of personalities who have profited off social media; with just as many going on a prolonged social media cleanse. (“I will miss you, Tom Holland!”)

I myself have enjoyed social media; until I didn’t. And there are also plenty of documentation out there about social media toxicity and its correlation with mental health. But we’re not here to debate the pros and cons of social media. We can agree that humans have an innate need to connect. Perhaps the better question now to ask is, Can they still do so in web3?


Social media through the web ages

Those who lived through web1 will remember Netscape and AOL dialup. This has been much parodied by young punks today.

But those who witnessed the dawn of web1 can recall the anticipation whenever they heard the “PEEE-KKKR-SSSHHH” sound, because on the other end of that cacophony lay the world. There were people publishing poems, stories and movie quotes. AOL chat opened my eyes (and conversations) with complete strangers, and we bonded over the genius of Tim Roth. We didn’t call it social media then but it was already social in 1995. Web1 was about discovering there’s a whole universe out there bigger than ourselves. And across the digital chasm were strangers we could be friends with…even though it all sounded a tad predatory (because of the anonymity).

Then came web2. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok have made publishers and creators of everyone. It started as “digital media” and “new media”, before finding its groove as “social media”, which stuck. Social media in web2 is a creator’s economy, and the narcissist’s playground. In this era, the world feels closer than before. It feels peer-to-peer. But is it really though? Unbeknownst to us, we thought we were so smart, putting our lives on parade and our thoughts and our IP for the world to see. But we were owned. So owned. Web2 companies tell us what to see, who to see, when to see. But at least the predators now have a name.

So whereas web1 was all about access and conversations, web2 ushered in an era of creating and sharing. And then the problems arose. In an atmosphere thick with issues surrounding data privacy, and content and information ownership, the arrival of web3 seemed almost messianic. It promises control and true peer-to-peer. Web3 is about ownership and transactions.


Social media in the age of web3

Web3 is not a single website that you can use, but a network of hundreds of communities, each of which owns a copy of the code. It brings people with common interests together and facilitates economic transactions. These transactions happen on the blockchain and are typically governed by smart contracts and governance tokens.

blockchain social media web3

The term blockchain itself sounds very social, doesn’t it? It is behind this conceit that web3, leveraging blockchain technology, seems to bring people even closer together by cutting out the middleperson. You own what you create without centralised platforms and intermediaries. You determine who accesses your data, and need not enter into Faustian bargains with tech giants for use of their technology and platforms.

In the age of web3, decentralisation is the word. We’re talking digital autonomous communities and Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs). What are DAOs used for? For one, they run many of today’s emerging metaverse projects. We’re talking also about organic, self-sovereign communities that can possibly be impervious to government intervention and overreach. Power within a community is redistributed to its members: You and your peers can vote on proposals and decisions pertaining to the community platform or app’s operation. Techno optimists are already predicting web3 will usher in not only Internet democracy but possibly also an offline one. Everything is peer-based. How social(ist) does that sound?


The issue with web3 and its implications on social media

It follows that watchdogs are asking whether web3 will be less a technologist’s utopia but more a libertarian socialist’s one. At which point, you may be wondering, Wait, how did we get from enjoying social media to being labelled a socialist if we want to enjoy web3? What are the new rules of engagement now? Indeed, web3 is not without its issues. Here are 4 that will impact how we approach web3 through the lens of social media.


Issue #1: The perils of anonymity and digital identity

One of the more attractive things about web3 is that it lets people choose what they want to reveal about themselves. Whereas web2 is characterised by irresponsible data sharing and exploitation for commercial gain, web3 empowers the user with ownership and control over their own data. This is possible thanks to self-sovereign identity (SSI), which centres the control of information around the user and removes the need to store personal information entirely on a central database.

Besides controlling access, users of web3 can also control how they look online, particularly on the metaverse. Because they are not bound by the laws of physics, they can be anything they want. They can have eternally flaming hair or sport legit Gucci totes, look as human or as alien as they like, or appear as cisgender or as non-binary as they feel. This sort of freedom to create and express is certainly liberating for everyone, and represents a step forward for DEI&A and identity politics. But on the seamier side, it could also mean someone can hide behind anonymity. That which is meant to protect and empower for some, under the wrong hands, can turn predatory to others. The predators, like in web1, has become anonymous. Only this time they’re better dressed.

web3 virtual avatar digital identity


Issue #2: Data permanence and social curation

Remember how you could erase an ex from your social media feed upon breakup and disavow this person ever existed in web2? Taylor Swift and The Weeknd can do a lot of things, but scrubbing their bae from their IG feed post-breakup is not one of them in web3. Or have you ever followed, say, Lou Bega on Facebook back in the day, and now kinda outgrown the Mambo No. 5? It’s no longer as simple as “Unfollow”, kiddo!

Everything that is registered and stored in your digital wallet or ledger in web3 is there for good. And tampering with any records is impossible. The implication of this is that people are less likely to post random musings and OOTDs in web3. Content will be more calculated than Martha Stewart’s accountant and more manicured than her peach garden. People will likely be on their guard more, and much less likely to engage cuz the stakes are simply much higher now. And those who do, will be putting up much more of a front.


Issue #3: Safety and social paranoia

According to the World Economic Forum, 25% of our population will spend more than an hour a day in the metaverse by 2026. As digital commerce in the metaverse grows in scope and scale—some estimates by up to US$1 trillion in yearly revenues—cyber attacks are expected to escalate in severity and frequency. Already, many have fallen victim to phishing scams using deep fake technology (impersonating brands and avatars), cryptocurrency theft and NFT fraud, not to mention encountering sexual and racial harassment. How many of us have faced momentary sense of paranoia watching popular Youtuber Ryan Trahan tour the metaverse? It was scary, interesting, and wistful all at once.

If web3 governance, like regulatory actions or solutions to combat cyber crimes without compromising people’s privacy are not implemented, one can expect increased paranoia when engaging in commercial and social activities in web3 too.


Issue #4: Accessibility and the social divide

When most think of web3 today, NFTs and the metaverse readily come to mind. Any of those can be communities capable of being turned into a form of social media, online and off. Already we see NFT communities like Bored Ape Yacht Club creating their own soirees in the real world. Nevertheless it’s a community of bored and privileged simians, which is ironic, considering web3 is intended to be a democratic platform but which has become kinda exclusionary.

Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT

What about the metaverse? Those who can’t afford souped-up hardware like VR headsets, smart glasses and haptic suits may not be able to get as much out of their experience as those who can. How do these forms of media then become truly social when the degree of engagement are somewhat determined by disposable income and privilege? Are we bringing people closer together? Or pulling them further apart?


So how can we win(g) the web3 social media game

Social media as we currently know it will die. There, I’ve said it (again). Web2 social giants are finding ways to integrate their web2 offerings into web3; we are already seeing some migratory patterns (hello Meta! I see you, Twitter), but it’s likely they will continue to be web2. Meanwhile, web3 companies will learn to include social capabilities into their offerings. Web3 will not replace web2; rather, both webs will continue to co-exist for a while more. Those who prefer to connect with their existing network of friends, kins, colleagues and acquaintances on existing platforms can continue to do so on web2. Those who venture into web3 will likely build new networks not based on who they know, but what they like. Well, kinda like web1! (Isn’t that the cosmic joke.)

web3 social media

So how then do you create community in web3 and turn this new new media into social opportunity? Does community mean much when it’s all about transactions? Here are some tips on how to win(g) the web3 social media game.


Tip #1: Provide value

Things feel less transactional when it’s about value. This should be easy for seasoned marketers. Offer solutions to problems and challenges (large and small) and conserve the customer’s limited resources (time, money, psychological and physical capacity). Enable feelings of empowerment, security, safety and confidence. Enrich them with inspiration, pride, connectedness and validation. Give them something worth stepping out of their protected shell for, something worth engaging with. Not with your products, but with experiences and stories. Because stories have unifying power and bring people closer together. They let your brand shine.


Tip #2: Be interest-driven

This is how people will discover you in this radical new frontier. Because of its decentralised nature, web3 will see people with common interests band together in the form of “moving castles”. Make sure to create, import and arrange composable parts (such as avatars, props and environments) together as a coherent whole while making these parts available for others to reuse and adapt when building your web3 community. Web3 is an open platform and communities are organic, after all. Aim for interoperability. This gives you the chance to interact with other communities as well. Communicate with, play with, and share knowledge and skills with other communities and help them become moving castles themselves with their own lore, ecosystems, economies and social currencies. Before you know it, they can tell stories about you, with you.


Tip #3: Be inclusive

Expensive bells and whistles like haptic suits are great, but accessibility and customer love are even better. Be an ethical brand that provides equal access to all. Continue to practice DEI&A. Endeavour to put in guardrails to safeguard user privacy while protecting them from predatory actions. It will be more critical than ever to maintain empathy for audiences. All audiences.


Tip #4: Support with offline

Omnichannel is still very much a thing in web2, and will continue to be so in web3. Extending your reach, engagement and visibility into offline channels can help drive visibility to your web3 efforts and will still be the secret sauce to building a strong brand overall. It’s no surprise why you’re still seeing the word “hybrid” bandied around a lot.


Tip #5: Don’t quit web2 just yet

Duh. But also, keep an eye on how “SocialFi” (social media on the blockchain) platforms like Chingari, Phaver and Steemit are developing. These haven’t quite caught on yet, as web3 is still in its infancy and people are still getting their bearings. So who knows whether one of them will become the next Signal. If they can crack the technobabble and get users to see value instead of transactions, that is.



So what’s the future of social media in web3

Social media in web3 will be a more disaggregated and decentralised ecosystem of micro-communities, all powered by independent tokens and blockchain, NFTs and FTs. In this new wild wild west of www, transactions may rule the roost. But isn’t every conversation and exchange and get together we have online and off a transaction anyway? A transaction of time, friendship and affection. It’s just that now people are putting a financial value to it. But if you go by the aphorism “time is money”, it just makes us a lot more intentional about how and where and with whom we spend our time on web3.

Come to think of it also, doesn’t words and concepts like “open frontiers”, “moving tribes”, “the search for belonging and companionship”, “trading and bartering”, “socialism”,  “lawlessnes”, sound a lot like the world of our ancestral cavepeople? As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same…ish. It’s just that this time, we’re all better manicured and wield much much fancier tools.


Sustainability partnership

Green consumerism is reaching fever pitch. According to Wunderman Thompson, 86% of consumers today expect businesses to play their part in solving challenges like climate change and social justice. It’s no wonder brands are now frantically racing each other, the clock and the climate, to do good, and look good. But unless you’re a Fortune 500 company, you’re likely struggling to make the impact you hope to make or are now expected to make. Enter sustainability partnerships.

Let’s face it, most brands today have some element of sustainability in their brand strategy: Whether ESG (environmental, social, governance), DEI (diversity, equality, inclusion), or any combination thereof. You’re probably one of them. It’s the only way to not get left behind. But sustainability is an expansive topic. Even a single alphabet in ESG and DEI requires Herculean effort to pull off and see through. And some brands are doing it more successfully than others.

Where do you stand in this weighty equation?



Why brands are now all in on sustainability partnerships

Sustainability partnerships are basically partnerships that involve 2 or more businesses teaming up for mutual benefits related to sustainability goals. It could be for positive environmental impact or social impact. Or both. Based on the sort of impact they’d like to make, brands may find themselves seeking like-minded companies and organisations, whether for a fling or serious relationship.

Why? Consumer expectations aside, brands recognise that when they reduce their carbon footprint or whip their “S” into shape, the results not only bolster brand reputation but also improve shareholder performance. The more successful ones have even seen gains in operations, staff engagement and financial performance. At the 2022 Asia Tech conference in Singapore, the message was clear: Sustainability is profitability. What’s not to like?


The reality check

Unfortunately, sustainability requires collective action. It’s not something you can go at it alone. Individual companies can yield only limited impact: Most do not have sufficient resources, knowledge, skill, scale or efficiencies to tackle such big issues on their own. Not to mention, some issues are systemic. And those require a chorus and coalition. It is therefore only a matter of time before brands wake up and join forces. It’s the quicker way to accelerate change, scale impact and create value.

While sustainability partnerships are now the flavour of the month, they are notoriously difficult to build, challenging to sustain and even harder to scale. As most divorced couples will tell you, it’s easy to get married, but it’s difficult to stay married. Likewise, brands that enter into sustainability partnerships without the proper footing may find themselves in a world of pain.


How to do sustainability partnerships (and the world) right

Sustainability partnerships are a valuable tool to drive change toward more responsible, inclusive and sustainable growth. This is because by combining the capacity and firepower of multiple parties, you can do more and effect more. You may then be wondering, “Great, I’m in…. Where do I start?”


1. Start with your purpose

We’ve established that you probably already have some form of sustainability in your brand or corporate strategy. The trick now is to make sure that strategy does not circle profit but purpose. After all, a brand’s purpose is not about making money. (That’s organisational.) Instead, a brand’s purpose is about what its audience holds dear, and how the brand can meet those values and desires. Basically, it’s why you do what you do.

Most strategists would caution brands against just planting their purpose flag on what’s trending on Twitter, and that’s wise counsel. Rather, you’d want to plant it on a cause (or a few) that you and your audience are genuinely passionate about. What’s the impact you want to make? Whatever it is, it must be something you truly believe in and can see through. Is it about social justice? Or to support the natural state of our environment? Maybe to fight identity prejudice? Or to level the playing field for small businesses? Whatever it is, discover it, own it and commit to it.


2. Define your reason for sustainability partnerships

With your purpose pinned, you will then want to work out why you want to get hitched. Is it for reach? Legitimacy and credibility? Or stronger advocacy? Perhaps it’s to develop a product or service innovation? Maybe to share proprietary knowledge? Or engage employees?

You would want to approach this conversation from multiple fronts. Start by looking at it from the outside in, and from the inside out: What do consumers expect from you as a brand and what do you expect of yourselves as an organisation? In other words, define your whys.

Next, examine your hows. This means considering the gap and opportunity: What’s preventing you from getting to your green and/or rainbow destination? And what’s the opportunity to bridge inside and out?

Then think about what kind of partner can fill those gaps and opportunities. It should be one that aligns with your purpose and partnership goal.


3. Look for kindred spirits: Research, research, research

Sustainability partnerships can take many forms. Here are some common ones. Which one’s right for you?

  • With competitors: Some brands set aside differences to meet a common target. These work on the basis of mutual gain derived from combined resources and scale. You leverage each other’s communications channels to get the message out to more people without doubling down on advertising budgets.
  • Cross industry: Some companies seek out brands from a different sector. Doing so not only helps them extend reach into new segments, but also allows brands with different expertise to amalgamate a greater repertoire of knowledge and capabilities to do more. Diverse brands can combine insights and strengths to tackle complex problems or come up with innovative solutions together.
  • With suppliers: Many conversations around ESG circle supply chains. This follows increased public scrutiny on product carbon footprint. As a consequence, brands are examining their relationship with suppliers, and seeking out those that can help meet their decarbonisation and DEI goals.
  • With investors: These apply mostly to start-ups that need cash infusion to fund operations, innovations, or market penetration.
  • With governments/NGOs: Consider these if you need to understand a topic more deeply, for they have expertise that you may not. Besides, they make great sustainability partners also because they can offer access, legitimacy and credibility.
  • Community: Special interest/advocacy groups and KOLs can be partners too. They can connect you to audience and influence. You can have them consult on solutions; or be a springboard to understand the challenge to more accurately orientate your solution.


4. Put together a compelling pitch

When approaching brands for sustainability partnerships you must pitch your right-to-win: Why are you in the best position to do this, and what do you have to offer in the relationship? In other words, why should they partner you and not others? Then offer a vision of where you think they can come in, and how.

Be prepared to share the societal and/or environmental benefits, relevance and envisioned outcomes of what you want to do. For a compelling pitch, don’t simply cite UN SDG goals (you know, the ones with the numbers and coloured blocks). Go beyond broad statements and intent. Think about specific targets and KPIs. Back it up with data. The more tangible you make it, the more credible you will come across.

Now’s a good chance to demonstrate to your prospective partner that sustainability is a conversation beyond your marketing department. Talk about how your business is/has been/will be sustainable. This way, you come across sincere, passionate and authentic.

Speaking of sincerity, make sure you have the correct representation at critical meetings. Bring out senior firepower. When they know that it’s worth your senior leaders’ time, they’ll know that it’s worth theirs.


5. Discuss the depth and tone of the partnership

Consumers today know when you’re being serious about sustainability and when you’re just green- or rainbow-washing. Whichever partner you want to work with, make sure to research their reputation for brand safety. Ensure their values match up and there’s genuine interest and commitment too. And that they’re not in it just for PR.

Therefore, when negotiating sustainability partnerships, go beyond superficial or transactional arrangements (e.g., buying media space or database to push your sustainability messages; or running a promotional giveaway in the name of climate change…and then end at that). Know that sustainability partnerships that prioritise integration and transformation are more meaningful, impactful and valued. Move your conversations into this space.

Then talk about who from each other’s organisation will be involved. Successful sustainability partnerships must start at the top. This means not just garnering senior management buy-in, but for them to actively build a culture for such partnerships to thrive. In other words, leaders must be willing to mobilise, inspire and galvanise staff involvement. Already some leaders are starting to link an employee’s pay to their ESG efforts and targets, and this HR trend is gaining traction and growing in popularity. This ought to spell good news to those seeking sustainability partnerships: It will become easier and easier to get people involved.

Here’s a good juncture to discuss also goals and desired outcomes. Think about what success looks like. What is the destination that both parties can agree on? Make it measurable. But besides gunning for those big fat hairy goals, it’s beneficial to also set intermediate ones. Not merely because life and culture now moves at the speed of light and warrants continued optimisation of anything and everything we do, but because setting mid-point goals can help measure progress and boost motivation for all involved.


6. Make your resources available

Make good on your promises and be prepared to put some skin into the game when you enter into sustainability partnerships. That means being honest and transparent on how much effort, time and resources you’re willing to put into the arrangement.

For some organisations, this could mean forming a task force with key stakeholders (and budget set aside). The taskforce can comprise a strategic cross-section of employees representing different departments  involved. In some cases, it may even incl. an external consultant or 2.  Strive to understand the caliber of the assembled resources as well. It should match up to the partner’s expectation. Whatever shape this task force takes, imagine how it will look to the other party. It should signal commitment, conviction and intention.


7. Clearly spell out the rules of engagement

Professional partnerships have little room for flip-flopping. It’s perfectly acceptable to draw up a contract. The bigger the stakes, the greater the need for a legally binding agreement. If you’re jointly developing a campaign, programme, product or service, ensure clarity in things like IP ownership. Make provisos also for items like timelines, human capital, financial investment, meeting cadences, advertising commitments on both sides. Clearly state the who, what, when, where and hows.

Now, even as you focus on governing principles and obligations for a successful sustainability partnership, remember to not neglect its destination. Do a bit of scenario planning: When you’ve reached the target, what’s next?; conversely, if you don’t reach it, what then? It’s important to agree on what the exit looks like, because nobody likes a messy custody battle.


Bottomline: Gun for the green line

Today, a company’s focus is no longer about the top line or bottomline. It’s about the greenline. Brands that understand this agenda and align their activities will reap business and reputation benefits. However, with a challenge as complex as sustainability, brands are hard-pressed to manage it alone. For it takes collective action, cooperation and, of course, massive amounts of control and coordination.

And if all of this sounds overwhelming or daunting, engage a professional. They can bring updated knowledge, connections and efficiency to the table. They can lubricate the process, and help get you to the starting line faster. As Dylan says, “Times, they are a-changing”. And there’s really not much of it left to waste.


This article incl. contributions from senior leaders managing strategic partnerships in both the public and private sectors, one at an international consulting firm, the other at a statutory board.

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.