Building cultural capital in the age of overwhelm

Patricia McDonald, Chief Strategy Officer at Dentsu Creative, on why consumers want more joy from brands

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


“Little moments of joy are almost an act of self-care. It is really smart for brands to invest in culture and entertainment.” Chief Strategy Officer at Dentsu Creative, Patricia McDonald has a unique lens on the very genuine challenge of brands building cultural currency.

A problem becomes a crisis when it challenges consumers' ability to cope and therefore threatens their identities. A polycrisis is a cluster of related global risks with compounding effects; war, geopolitical uncertainty, climate crisis, a cost of living crisis. As this cluster has continued to grow in the wake of the pandemic, marketers are facing up to the realities of connecting with consumers in an era in which ‘age of overwhelm’ is more than a generic statement.

Mercifully as one of the foremost strategic brains in advertising, having won numerous IPA Effectiveness Awards as well as picking up gongs at Cannes and D&AD, McDonald is a generic statement-free zone. Instead, she shares practical insights to navigate an increasingly unforgiving business environment. “What we are seeing with the culture of polycrisis and anxiety is consumers turning to joy and silliness, almost as a resistance to the scariness of everyday life.”

McDonald’s analysis is not just a hunch, it is based on the 2023 Dentsu Creative CMO survey, which lifted the lid on the challenges facing marketers. 700 CMOs from across the globe shared their hopes and fears in the ‘Creativity at a Crossroads’ report. Unsurprisingly, connecting with culture was at the top of the list. The report revealed that 86% of CMOs agree that brands should aspire to create culture and build their own audience. 

A crisis of comedy 

Yet the research revealed that brands aren’t doing enough to deliver joy in tough times. Almost half (58%) of marketers say that advertising is not entertaining enough anymore. While the continued rise of third-party data means that brands are at risk of becoming culturally disconnected from the very consumers they are seeking to connect with.

McDonald explains: “People really want to own their own audience. If they don’t own the audience, they don’t own the data.” Yet owning an audience demands giving them something they actually want to engage with in the first place. “If you want to own an audience you have to entertain them, you have to add value,” she adds.

According to the report, CMOs agree entertainment will be a key component of brand building and are looking to build their brands in the spaces and places that matter most, investing in platforms from podcasts to programming to engage audiences that are harder than ever to interrupt. The research reveals that 80% of marketers agree that technologies such as live streaming are blurring the boundaries between content and commerce as never before.

We sell hope. If we can help people to believe that there is a better future and there is a point to change, we can enable behaviour change.

Patricia McDonald, Chief Strategy Officer at Dentsu Creative

The power of emotion 

The research reveals that humour is making a comeback with 58% of marketers looking to create moments of joy in these difficult times. In the sea of buy one get one free offers and price promotions the question is one of proving the power of emotive advertising. Laughter, perhaps, is the most underutilised yet delicious of all emotions.

McDonald explains: “We have all this brilliant data from the IPA that emotion is a really powerful sales tool. There is a real hunger for joy right now.” Yet rather than following the well-worn path of berating the industry for embracing purpose-led marketing, McDonald underlines that joy can co-exist with big challenges for both business and society.

“Humour doesn’t mean we can’t do serious things. Less than 3% of scripted programmes talk about climate change and sustainability. If you really want to change people’s minds you need to change their hearts and minds,” she explains. In short, facts alone aren’t always enough to change entrenched views or purchasing decisions, feelings are just as important.

“We sell hope, if we can help people to believe that there is a better future and there is a point to change, we can enable behaviour change. You have to have not given up on your belief in change,” she adds. 

From cultural currency to cultural responsibilities 

The research reveals that marketing leaders are increasingly aware of the unintended consequences of where their advertising appears. There is little point in brands running advertising campaigns to help tackle the climate crisis, for example, if their advertising is inadvertently funding it.

62% of CMOs are worried about the potential adverse consequences of their campaigns and investments on the environment and society. While 64% expressed concerns that their media spending may inadvertently contribute to political polarisation.

“Context is really important and it is a much more complex issue now it is not just a question of one single platform. We have all seen those studies that bad news travels faster,” explains McDonald.

However, McDonald is excited by the large number of CMOS who believe their businesses will fundamentally pivot because of the climate crisis. She explains: “We have such potential as an industry and such an opportunity to develop circular products. CMOs always say that collaboration is a real challenge, but if we work collectively as an industry with many more players we can create more change.”

She believes there are many interesting problems to be solved; from the emissions of returns to ensuring virtual try on technology reduces the waste of poorly fitting clothing. The red thread between them all being that many minds will meet these challenges faster. 

Diversity drives creativity 

The report underlines a growing understanding from marketing leaders that tackling these big issues and driving cultural currency demands diversity. Both in terms of who is behind the lens and media investments.

“If we are going to create culture we have to be immersed with culture in all its richness,” explains McDonald. She points to the research showing that 81% of CMOs believe brands can play an important role in funding those independent and diverse voices. “Post covid people had this huge curiosity and had this huge desire to immerse themselves in culture. There is no feeling that culture is a top down-one,” she explains.

CMOs are also demanding flexibility and diversity from the people they work with. 86% want their agencies and partners to connect the right talent at the right moment.

That agility also extends to how brands and agencies work together to better connect with consumers. McDonald believes that it is powerful to target consumers based on context, using real time signals, such as the weather, to deliver the right message in the right medium at the right time. “This context can be more meaningful than generational experiences,” she explains. 

The promise of an escapist Christmas 

Meaningful experiences will be on top of the annual Christmas advertising bonanza, where advertising gets to flex its cultural currency in the biggest sales moment of the year. Last year saw brands lean on emotion and empathy in the wake of the cost of living crisis. Yet now, more than ever, don’t consumers deserve a break from the empty empathy of the ‘we are on your side’ narrative?

McDonald predicts that we will see lots of comedy. “A brilliant and funny Christmas awaits,” she explains. “John Lewis has always done something that has broken your heart, but this year across the board we will see a bit more joy. Interwoven with that value messaging.”

She warns, however, that there is ‘a finite amount of price elasticity in a cost of living crisis.’ This means that not only are consumers trading down in certain sectors, but they increasingly believe brands should provide more practical support in shouldering the additional cost for sustainable choice, for example. “People are expecting brands to really do the right thing,” McDonald explains.

Yet there remains an appetite for experimentation. “We have seen the coming together of content and commerce. People have grown up with live-streaming. So the question is what’s an entertainment franchise and what’s a retail franchise? There is no reason you couldn’t  have, for example, a shoppable pantomime with shoppable content.”

Keeping your head up and staying curious is key to capitalising on this opportunity and keeping connected to culture. At Dentsu Creative curiosity is not just an empty buzzword, it is a work in progress supported by tangible actions.

“Every week we get our strategy team together and we share pitch decks. But we also come with one curious insight that we bring to the table. This is something really interesting that could spark an interesting thought,” she explains.

Tangible examples include a recent discussion about ‘Clean Tok’ where you sit back and watch other people clean their houses. McDonald also ensures that her team gets out to exhibitions together, as well as visiting exhibitions with her children. While micro-moments of space - such as her walk to Denstu’s HQ through the natural beauty of Regents Park - provide the fuel for creative thinking.

“We lean on the diversity of our teams,” she explains “We have different people, different offices and different points of view gained through different skill sets and disciplines. “There is an inherent richness to that,” she explains, adding that this week the team is kicking off the 2024 trends process, which brings together many strategists from different parts of the world.

Each territory brings with it unique insights; from French consumers using Chat GPT as an alternative to ghosting people on WhatsApp, to the awareness of the impact of performative living in China. “Young people in China talk about stolen moments of happiness in a very performance-driven culture,” she explains.

As McDonald’s expansive approach underlines for brands seeking to meaningfully connect with culture their investment in understanding the real challenges of their consumers' lives needs to be more than just a ‘stolen moment’. Smart marketers recognise that ‘curiosity’ isn’t a buzzword, it’s an everyday pursuit that culture makers embrace.