For the purpose of this piece, I am going to focus on the positives – putting aside the devastating impact COVID-19 is having on so many people around the world. I wanted to recognise this first and hope people can join me in reflecting on this period in a slightly more optimistic way.
The crisis presented by the pandemic has truly enabled creativity and innovation to flourish on every level. Whether that’s parents having to rethink their home and working day to accommodate young children and some form of quiet office space (I speak from personal experience), or companies having to rethink their complete business model; everything has had to be rethought and reimagined.
We’ve seen amazing efforts by brands of all sizes adapt and then contribute to the global relief effort. Large companies have shown unexpected agility in pivoting production lines; LVMH quickly repurposed its perfume production to make hand sanitiser, and sportswear giant adidas announced collaborations to produce face shields. And at the same time, smaller service-based companies have addressed how they can continue without physical contact. Opticians offering virtual appointments (see Ace & Tate), fitness studios switching to online sessions (see FRAME), comedy clubs presenting Zoom gigs (see Always Be Comedy) and cocktail bars mixing drinks two meters from your door (see Top Cuvée) are just a few examples.
We’re witnessing change at speed, all enabled through constant innovation in the tech sector where emerging innovations have been catapulted into the ‘mass adoption’ stage of their lifecycle.
I could talk at great length about endless, diverse examples of creativity and innovation – I haven’t even touched on the staggering line up of completely new ideas born to the COVID era – however, I want to highlight an area that’s far closer to our professional home; editorial.
Like all industries, COVID-19 has had a quick and inevitably lasting impact on media and its commentary; but, in a similar vein to my opening lines, I’m keen to focus on some of the greatest positives. We’ve witnessed wonderful creativity and agility to ensure our favourite, trusted titles can continue to operate, educate and entertain… arguably when we need them the most. As we will all endorse, nevermore so has quality, credible editorial been as important, be it as the source of accurate information or the source of a smile.
Social distancing remains one of the biggest challenges that publications have had to adapt to – how do you create covers and features when shoots are currently an impossibility? Grazia was able to feature a cover with TV presenter Laura Jackson thanks to her photographer husband Jon Gorrigan and. in a more recent issue, left its traditional cover format in favour of original sketches by British designers Erdem and Richard Quinn (in turn raising money for COVID-19). The June issue of American Vogue featured the fashion bible’s first still life cover in 50 years, while GQ completely rewrote the rules with a self-shot image of Robert Pattinson, taken by the star in isolation.
Harper’s Bazaar’s fashion director Avril Mair has commented that the theme of its upcoming July issue is “that great creativity can come out of times of great crisis.” The cover was shot by someone already isolating with the star, clothes were sent to the celebrity’s home, and styling was conducted by the magazine’s team over Zoom. For the issue’s fashion feature, the team set about finding a photographer/model couple who could shoot it at home, without styling, hair or makeup.
Beyond production issues, the ‘Stay Home’ mandate created broader changes and creative considerations for several publishers. We saw Time Out respond at speed to become ‘Time In’ and Evening Standard deliver direct to homes for the first time in its 193-year history.
We’re of course seeing a similar logistical challenge effect TV magazine shows. Friday night’s The Last Leg was a great example of how agility and reimagination have paid off… far better than with The Graham Norton Show or Have I Got News for You in my opinion (having three people that are used to working together, naturally laughing at each other’s jokes, was probably key to this). The Last Leg ‘Locked Down Under’ featured Adam Hills in Australia, Josh Widdicombe in London and Alex Brooker in Huddersfield; using sets they’ve created themselves, no physical crew, hair or makeup and joined by guests on Skype. There was even an unexpected Australian rainstorm thrown into the mix. But somehow it worked, giving us the Friday night topical entertainment we’ve become accustomed to. In the absence of the Premier League, MOTD also very successfully adapted its format to give football fans their fix; a Zoom style conversation between the presenters discussing their all-time top 10s. Cue much banter around Alan Shearer putting himself at number one for every roundup!
Brand as publishers
Within our teams, we too are having to rethink content creation in the COVID era. With brands now acting as publishers, consumers are expecting the same volume of storytelling on companies’ social channels. Quick. All change!
adidas has further tapped into the creativity and appeal of its athletes and ambassadors, getting its sporting stars and street style icons to shoot content from inside their own homes, by themselves and without the previous 20+ crew. This has meant different briefs for the talent, online tutorials and remote support for the brand’s new filmmakers.
L’Oreal Paris adopted a similar approach in its recent ad. The campaign featured Eva Longoria dying her own hair and filming the new creative herself via Microsoft Teams – arguably greatly increasing the credibility of the message and endorsement.
With brands like Zara featuring self-portraits by models, and many others relying on content shot by the consumer themselves, it brings important consideration for ‘post-pandemic’ creative; will glossy, highly stylised content now seem outdated, or will we be crying out for the epic and picture-perfect?
The right tone
Once all the logistical challenges have been overcome, it then comes onto the critical consideration of tone. What content and commentary feels appropriate at the moment? Where stories of A-list stars and supermodels have previously dominated the pages of our favourite lifestyle magazines, we’re seeing the spotlight firmly shift to our frontline key workers. Society’s true superstars. Following on from its sister issue’s pure white cover in Italy (another first), British Vogue’s August edition will focus on NHS workers, chronicling their struggles as they cope with the pandemic.
Grazia was quick to react as the crisis unfolded, ripping up its scheduled, traditional celebrity cover and replacing it with four medics, and ELLE featured a portfolio of portraits of women doing essential work in supermarkets through to homeless shelters. This again presents important creative considerations; how do you balance the escapism and glamour that’s previously been so lusted after by readers of such titles, with the mood and character of the ‘new normal’? Will we ever revert back to the same ‘glossies and gossip’ of pre-COVID?
The additional challenge for longer lead publications is how to remain reactionary and in-tune with the mood of the nation; especially when the world is changing at the pace it currently is. As already cited here, magazines have been managing it well, making bold decisions and pivoting at the last minute, and they are increasingly using their digital and social footprint to help navigate the right balance in real-time. British Vogue was able to inject fresh energy, interest and relevancy to the launch of its print issue featuring a pre-COVID interview and cover with Dame Judi Dench through a digital campaign featuring the likes of Stormzy, Kate Moss and Reese Witherspoon asking their questions to the cover star from home. The publisher has also balanced its more serious, real-life stance in print issues, with a lighter tone on social – only last night, Vogue Germany shared a well-received all-star choreographed routine on TikTok.
Beyond logistics and content, format consideration is also fuelling creativity and innovation in media, in turn creating consequences for our craft of public relations. To balance the fast pace, hard-hitting headlines we are constantly receiving, people are using time in isolation to enjoy, learn and reflect from longer-form content. And if not on hard news, journalists and writers are finding more time to write these pieces. How can the brands we work for contribute to – and indeed inspire – such features? Can they make more time for the authors of such pieces, giving them greater access and insight (albeit via remote means)?
And longer-form isn’t just presenting itself in writing. We’ve witnessed an influx of new podcasts; a viable, effective way of engaging readers beyond the online commentary. Do the brands we represent have spokespeople that are confident to dial into an open, exploratory discussion, by themselves and from their own home? Do the stories we create lend themselves to such long-form conversation and debate?
Harper’s Bazaar’s theme continues rings loud: “great creativity can come out of times of great crisis.” I’ve been so pleased to watch how quickly, and creatively, our much-loved editorial has been able to adapt to the unpredictable, unstoppable force of the COVID-19 virus. We’ve seen dramatically different, new approaches to ensure our valued sources of information or escapism can continue to reach us. It presents endless considerations us in PR; the appropriate tone and style of content we produce, the spokespeople we chose to deliver our message…and ultimately, how can we stay at the forefront of this pace of creativity and innovation to ensure our brands continue to stand out and lead the way.