Urgent marketing lessons for 2023—including the importance of back to the office

Forget resolutions. Let’s act on realizations in 2023.

Urgent marketing lessons for 2023—including the importance of back to the office

The new year started at a gallop and shows no sign of slowing down. It’s only January and we’ve already had a bomb cyclone, a stock market seizure and so much whining from The Prince Formerly Known As His Royal Highness that you might be wondering if you left the kettle on.

By any measure, 2023 is already turning out to be a wild ride, so let’s take a moment to reassess our priorities and plan ahead before it’s too late.

We’re not talking about New Year’s resolutions—half-hearted promises rarely kept. It’s time to shift from resolutions to realizations—an acknowledgment that we learned some things last year, and it’s time to put those lessons into action. Two of the most urgent:

The work gets better when we’re all together

Remember when C-suite pundits proclaimed the days of going into the office were over? The zombie apocalypse had arrived and government-mandated lockdowns followed with Orwellian alacrity, which turned corporate leaders into abject followers with no choice but to ask their staff to work from home. Rather than admit this was less than optimal, CEOs’ fragile egos demanded they hire consultants to reassure everyone that they were future-proofing their business and the digital revolution was here. There would be no loss to productivity, staff loyalty or culture. Look, we can see into each other’s homes, this will bring more empathy into our industry!

As the Bard once said (more or less), horseshit by any other name still smells like post-rationalization.

These are the same pseudo-intellectuals who now say remote learning had damaging effects on our children’s education and social development, as if that’s news to any parent who lived through the past three years. But wait, aren’t those the same guys who told us it would be fine for kids to stare at a screen for 12 hours because it’s a brave new world? (Clearly they forgot brave new world isn’t just an idiom, it’s the title of a dystopian novel.)

Clients have been ahead of their agencies on this topic, and it’s been amusing to see all the posts from agency CEOs proudly announcing their teams are coming into the office two to three days per week, as if that’s a new idea and not a retreat from the untenable position they took last year on our ability to stay remote forever. That’s fine for freelancers, but not for an agency at scale.

CFOs are still licking their lips at the prospect of more real estate consolidation, but hybrid is half-assed and everyone knows it. Our return to office may be occurring in gentle increments, but the end game is inevitable. Either you’re in or you’re out.

Creativity comes from collaboration, those beautiful collisions that occur daily between strategy and creative, client and account, or between the barista and anyone standing in line. Random exchanges that fuel ideas and spark a stray thought.

Scientists say 93% of all communication is non-verbal, so what happens when all the nuance of a conversation is reduced to a small screen? We already know the answer, and like our kids, agencies are starting to feel the effects: An insidious erosion of empathy and increase in burnout, because even though you’ve been talking to people all day, you feel like you’re working alone.

(Never forget that professional pundits who proclaimed the office was dead two years ago don’t work in an office themselves—they sit alone in their spare bedroom and pontificate. Stop reading their posts, and for God’s sake, stop paying them.)

If you want to be one of the “best places to work,” it might help to have a sense of place.

So get back to the office, let your mind wander during your daily commute and see if ideas come more easily. Embrace the sensory overload of a building buzzing with collaborative energy and ask yourself if you’d really rather be home alone. If the answer is yes, change careers before you become that burned-out bastard you’ve seen looking back at you from the lower right-hand corner of your screen.

Fear is the enemy of creativity

There’s an epidemic of fear that drives most marketing today. The shrinking tenure of a typical CMO means risk-averse clients are desperate to put numbers on the board without making waves. Stories of ideas getting killed by testing and second-guessing could fill a pine box, but the latest troubling trend is clients getting angry at their agency team because they brought an idea that’s too daring, too unconventional or too “off-brand” to be presented to their management.

Let me get this straight, you got mad because your agency brought you a bold idea?

If you are a client, it is absolutely your right—and your job—to decide if something is or isn’t right for your brand. (That’s why “chief” and/or “brand” is in your title.) At the same time, it is your agency’s responsibility to not only deliver an idea that will work based on where the brand is today, it is their duty to share ideas that show where the brand might go tomorrow.

Some of those ideas might seem outlandish, many may be wrong, but how will we know unless we pin them to the wall and debate the pros and cons? Collaboration leads to curation, but never forget that censorship leads to mediocrity.

You don’t want an agency to censor itself, so if your reaction to an idea that is off-brand is one of annoyance, as a client you’re showing your fear and undermining your authority. To paraphrase a famous saying, a brave CMO dies only once (and then gets a better job) but a coward dies a thousand deaths.

Be kind, collaborative and daring. Nobody cares about your brand until you get their attention, entertain them and give them enough information to be a welcome distraction. Scared clients make agencies anxious. Far better to take more chances and give your agencies permission to think out loud and fail.

So, to sum up, what shall we do in 2023?

Remember what we knew all along—that marketing is a team sport and creativity needs space to grow. Including office space.

And remember to aim for the fences when it comes to creativity—because if we don’t, then the game is already lost.