Moving Forward from the Abyss

Carrie Patterson Reed

The following article by Carrie Patterson Reed, executive director of the research studio at VMLY&R, was published by Campaign US. Click here to read the article on the Campaign US website.

You might be considered a sociopath if you weren’t full of feelings at this point in the omnipresent news cycle — full of crushing updates that go beyond what my imagination could have conceived just a few years ago. 

There has been much written about this unprecedented timethe pervasive vibe shift, the constant myriad struggles many are undergoing. If you’ve remained unscathed, then kudos to you (and please, share your secrets).

For even the most resilient among us, it’s been a period marked by slow-moving grief. It’s the kind of grief, over the big and small things, that has an additive effect, making the day to day feel like quicksand. 

While our losses vary widely, there’s little use or comfort in comparative grief. Musing that you don’t have it as bad as so-and-so only provides ephemeral relief; we need something more to restore our energy and find a path forward.

I’ve been a bit fixated on what’s next: What is this era about? How will we reflect on it in the future? And, more importantly, what is that future? 

We’re in a moment when creative destruction seems appealing. It sometimes feels like it might be easier to burn it all down and start fresh. By that, we usually mean starting fresh in our own likeness and with our own values. Culture often feels too large to affect much change on an individual level. 

I’m forever a pragmatic optimist, so my only way forward is to focus on the small possible good we might all be capable of doing to get to a better place. Let’s imagine that we’re all caterpillars — our very guts are being transformed into something worthwhile. To do so, we must reflect on the cornerstones of our daily life as individuals and society.

Let’s forget (for a moment) about the big systems at play and think about people. How can we drive transformative change? It might look a little different for each of us. For me, and hopefully many in the industry, it looks like:

Inclusive innovation

Diversity, equity and inclusion must inform every ounce of the work. How can we push on every part of the system so a broader array of voices and experiences get their due credit? How can we think about research and insights in a less clinical way to really design with, rather than for, others?

Compassionate companies

The workplace and work-life contract are forever altered, and our systems need to keep pace with real people. How will we transform the employee experience to rise to the occasion? How can we support people in a way that’s good for both them and the business? How can we leverage data and understanding to transform our connection with people?

Connective commerce

While there are clear flaws to late-stage capitalism, there is still a role for meaningful exchanges. How can we move beyond transactions to something more purposeful that truly connects the consumer to commerce?

Let’s push aside the fatigue and skepticism to transform what lies ahead. Let’s be curious and courageous enough to wonder and question why we do the things we do. Questioning what we know — and don’t know —  reveals opportunities we may be blind to in the frantic pace of daily life.

The greatest compliment I’ve ever received from a colleague is that I am a constructive contrarian. To be clear, that does not mean critiquing for the sake of being critical, or even being one of those devil’s advocates who drives everyone nuts. Questioning the status quo stems from a deep and legitimate desire to understand why: How did we get here, what are we missing, where could we go? 

Fair warning: provocative questions are disarming and often lead to new territories, but the questioner doesn’t always make friends in the process.

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