"Challenging in the extreme" is how the MD of one production company describes the current situation when it comes to filming brand work. That may be putting it mildly, as restrictions on travel and prohibitions against gatherings of more than a few people have ground commercial production to a standstill, first in China, and now, in a turnabout, virtually everywhere but China. The situation has demanded agility and resourcefulness from agencies and production companies as they try to get some work out the door.
The impact has already been painful, according to production and agency leaders, and there's no end in sight. It's unclear how long or how severely the ad pipeline will be depleted. The affected players are trying anything and everything to cope, from shelving and moving projects to changing creative approaches to having directors on set via telepresence. In some cases the crisis is accelerating trends that were already in progress. And while some changes may be temporary stopgaps, others may have more staying power.
"The situation is really challenging at this current moment," reports Onie Chu, executive director of the HK4As. "A fair guess is that only minimal production is on right now," partly because clients are facing tremendous uncertainty and partly because "as responsible corporate citizens, most agencies, brands and clients will push back any non-urgent projects or productions."
The situation has necessitated shuffling and rearranging that will one day make great fodder for war stories over drinks. Intricate, meticulously planned shoots were called off at the last minute—in some cases just before directors were due to board international flights—or moved with haste across borders.
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"Clients across certain categories who have suffered a hit quickly and deeply are now under huge budget pressures," says Jan Cho, MD of TBWA Hong Kong and its production unit, Bolt. "Some projects have been cut inevitably, but we’re fortunate most of our production projects are still ongoing despite some delays on several projects."
From the end of January through mid-March, most physical productions were put on hold across China, says Martin Granger, head of Bolt in China. "While China was locked down, we were fortunate we had the option to continue shooting across other markets such as Thailand and Vietnam. The challenge was that China crews were not allowed to travel to Vietnam, so we partnered with local talent."
Now, both Thailand and Vietnam are in lockdown and China is progressively reopening, but with strict limits on the number of people that can be on a set. And of course only people who have chilled for a 14-day quarantine period or otherwise been cleared in terms of virus exposure can be present, Granger says.
"When it all started happening a few weeks ago," says Wilf Sweetland, global CEO of production company Sweetshop, which started in New Zealand and now has offices around the world, "we went through this process of thinking, 'OK, China's coming out of it, New Zealand might be able to stave it off'. And so we put together a deck to send out to agencies to say, 'We're still open in New Zealand. We're still shooting.'" The company has eight directors based in New Zealand, and is equipped to provide remote access to sets—allowing a distant client, agency person or even director to see not only what the camera is shooting but also the larger environment around the set.
"And then, two days later, New Zealand shut down," Sweetland says.
Because China is more or less the only place worldwide where shooting is happening as of this writing, that deck has now been repurposed. "After coming out of quarantine or coming out of lockdown, all of China is ramping up," Sweetland says. "Currently we can do studio shoots there, of up to 50 people, and then as of mid this week, we should be allowed to do location shoots with up to 50 people, and slowly that will climb in size and scale." Sweetshop is at work on "quite big projects" for major brands, which are being driven out of New York, London, and Australia, he adds.
In markets with large Muslim populations, the disruption came at a particularly bad time. "March is usually the busiest time for agencies in Indonesia," says Anish Daryani, founder and president director of M&C Saatchi Indonesia. "Most Ramadan campaigns are produced during this time of the year." As of March 23 government guidelines caused the country's agency association to advise against all shoots. At the same time, private companies and the government revoked permits for locations, and celebrities and influencers cleared their schedules to isolate. "In our case, we have had to reschedule six shoots," Daryani says.
Like all industries—and all of us personally, for that matter—ad production is now in 'wait and see' mode and is working on strategies to endure the circumstances.
"The projects that require the filming of many people together, and/or overseas filming are being put on hold for the most part—not officially cancelled yet, but we’ll see how long this drags on," says Angela Cheung, Hong Kong-based MD of production house and creative agency APV.
There's a silver lining, according to Cheung, who contrasts the current situation against the 2003 SARS crisis and the 2008 financial meltdown. "Video is much more of a communication priority for every brand," she says. "Back in those days, video was the first marketing spend to be slashed after T&E and premiums. Now video is considered essential." APV is working on quick-turnaround leadership videos, its webcasting business has been "non-stop", and post-production work such as animation and interactive screen design is ongoing. "To summarise, we’re not at ‘dire’ yet," she says. "We’re stuck on ‘awful’."
Agencies with broad capabilities are of course working with clients on efforts that make more sense than TVC shoots at the moment. For example, Stephen Chung, creative partner at independent Secret Tour Hong Kong, says his agency is doing fine. While some projects are on hold, Secret Tour is helping clients to prepare for campaigns in the second half of the year, as well as working on tactical campaigns to boost sales in the short-term, especially on e-commerce and online channels.
The picture may be darker for smaller production-focused agencies and producers. Sweetshop's growth from its NZ origins to its current footprint (it has eight offices, in New Zealand, Australia, the US, the UK, China and Thailand) gives it a flexibility smaller players don't enjoy, Sweetland says. "I wouldn't want to be a production company that just has one office right now."
When moving or postponing a production proves impossible, changes to the content come up for consideration.
"We are working on alternative plans for clients, where we can develop creative content using stock footage, motion graphics, animation, stock music, digital imaging and stock photos," says M&C Saatchi's Daryani. "These are being done both as stopgap arrangements acting as fillers, as well as high-value productions replacing campaigns that needed shoots."
In Singapore, Stephenie Lee, production lead at The Secret Little Agency, reports similar efforts. "These times are forcing us to examine our production choices more carefully," she says. "Specifically, how, where and who we work with to get our work produced with no compromise on safety and on the quality of work we are putting out is proving to be tricky, but possible," she says. "Productions involving animation and CGI allow us to work remotely and globally. Closer to home, this is a great time for us to support Singaporean photographers, film directors and the entire production economy that makes our work possible."
TBWA's Cho touts Bolt's ability to be agile in finding solutions. "Challenges are generally the result of travel bans where a lot of creators are no longer able to fly in, so we look to find ways to cater shoots and post to be completed in different countries," Cho says. The agency is also moving to motion graphics and 3D when a live shoot is just no longer possible.
"Efficiency without compromise on quality is the value proposition of Bolt, and Bolt was set up to be agile from the get-go," Cho adds. "In a fluid macro situation like we’re now finding ourselves in, we’re comfortable in our capabilities of coming up with solutions for clients."
In one situation where a shoot fell through, one of Sweetshop's directors suggested finishing an ad using stock footage—an idea that would normally make a director run a mile in the other direction, as Sweetland puts it. But sometimes necessity is the mother of artistic compromise, and the director knew of a "filmic" stock-footage source. "And they've come out with an ad that is really meaningful," Sweetland says, although he adds it's probably not as effective as it could have been if they'd been able to shoot it.
Which illustrates how the current situation is influencing storytelling choices, according to Sweetland. The work that's coming through right now is tending toward simpler, more product-focused objectives, as opposed to complex narrative. Asked whether this has more to do with brands trying to keep things simple and neutral given the cultural climate, Sweetland insists that the shift is driven by the constraints on production; brands are choosing to go forward with work that's mainly studio-based and thus more easily achievable, he says.
Some brands have even made a virtue out of using low-cost, remote production methods that are very in tune with the moment: videoconferencing (see sidebar below).
What's going to stick?
As with most other industries, people in advertising production are quickly learning just how much they can accomplish without physical proximity.
"We’ve made good use of technology by moving our project management to a cloud-based platform," says M&C Saatchi's Daryani. "Our teams are constantly engaging and collaborating using virtual meeting tools and file sharing systems. All our clients have welcomed these initiatives. Some have also replicated our measures to fast track their own business-continuity protocols. As an agency, we refuse to submit to the COVID-19 pandemic, and resolve to overcome it by working harder, smarter and more efficiently."
Bolt's Granger said his teams were already accustomed to working remotely, which has helped minimize disruption.
One lasting change, even after the pandemic, will be more openness to the ability to be present on a set without being physically present on the set, Sweetland argues.
"The rest of the world [except China] is going to be locked down for some time, so through that period, we're going to get to iron out any wrinkles that might crop up, and we're going to get to experience it to its fullest extent," he says. "And I think through that process, agencies will be reassessing what their needs really are."
The crisis, it's already clear, is going to create downward cost pressure (to put it mildly). So it's only natural that if it's not necessary to send people along to a location, those travel expenses will become an attractive target. "As technology continues to facilitate these systems working faster and more seamlessly, it's probably natural that a lot of shoots will go this way," he says. "Not all of them by any stretch, because it is still better, where possible, to be in the same room to have a discussion. But it will open up a lot of people's eyes to other ways of doing things."
Sweetland also believes remote presence will help boost his business in the short term. "We're at the early stages of this remote shooting technology in terms of getting agencies and clients on board," he says. "My feeling is that that's going to ramp up because there are clients who need to advertise in this environment. You know, often when there's a downturn, the clients with cash advertise more, because it's their opportunity to get market share." That pressure will overcome apprehension not only about filming in China in general but also about using remote technology to reduce the cost, he says.
How Nike and AKQA filmed a documentary advice series in China under lockdown
With much of China under strict home isolation orders several weeks ago, Nike and AKQA devised a campaign to inspire homebound runners that could be carried out despite traditional production being an impossibility.
The NRC Home Run Club took the form of a documentary series, featuring real runners reporting in from their homes, plus a Nike coach providing expert advice. The team accomplished the concept, pitch, direction and filming with the entire crew and talent working remotely in isolation, using only smartphones for filming.
AKQA helped participants shoot clear videos by directing them on lighting and angles. The process took two weeks—less than expected, according to a Meeyee Foong, creative director of AKQA China—and may be repeated even after the pandemic ends.
Rahul Sachitanand contributed reporting to this article.