Staff Reporters
Apr 14, 2022

'The horror stories are real': How adland leaders in Shanghai are coping with lockdowns

Shanghai-based leaders at Wavemaker, DDB, Starcom and more express the struggles they currently face such as rationing food supplies, balancing their physical and mental health, and looking after their teams.

Clockwise from top: Food rations (Getty); vegetables being portioned for distribution (Sandy Wu)
Clockwise from top: Food rations (Getty); vegetables being portioned for distribution (Sandy Wu)

Shanghai is not only the largest city in China, it is also the commercial centre of China’s marcomms industry. Over the past few weeks, the city has been undergoing a government-imposed lockdown which has led to residents struggling to find basic necessities such as food.

Campaign Asia-Pacific reached out to adland professionals in Shanghai who expressed difficulties in their personal and work lives. Some have even joined volunteer groups as group-buying masters, and some have become translators and coordinators to many expats living in Shanghai.

Here's what they say:

Gordon Domlija, APAC CEO, Wavemaker

It is important to say is that a lockdown in China is quite different from many other place. You are confined to your living space other than for testing; there is no shopping for essentials such as groceries or medicine. Streets are guarded and patrolled, while residential doors and gates are taped, shuttered or bolted in order to keep people inside and ensure 100% compliance. Everything is closed, including hospitals. If you are infected, even if asymptomatic, you are forcibly taken into central quarantine, in awful conditions, which can mean separating parents from children and owners from pets.

The horror stories you see and hear about when this happens are very real and incredibly scary. Add to this the ‘indefinite’ nature of the lockdown, the breakdown of the supply chain, inability for many to access food and drinking water, and I can assure you it is a stressful time. No one I know is scared of Covid, but everyone is scared of what the authorities will do if you do have Covid. The immediate, and only priority is taking care of your family, checking in on people you know, and looking after your own wellbeing as best you can.

It is admittedly difficult to concentrate on work when you are at the same time trying to source food, playing the grocery mystery box delivery lottery or joining community group-buys when they become available and orders are accepted.

However, work does not stop. We continue to pitch, which is not a lot of fun, client demands don’t slow down, and actually there is very little understanding or empathy to the situation here from anyone outside, indeed there is no leeway or let up in volume and intensity of work. The expectation is very much business as usual, when the situation is very far from usual.

In a more tangible way, I am really proud how we have come together as GroupM to source emergency welfare packages of food, water and medicines, along with the logistics to get these directly to individuals in need. These last two years have, for me at least, permanently changed the role and definition of agency leadership. Empathy, compassion and duty of care for your people are the only important things when it comes to ‘work’.

Anna Chitty, CEO, Starcom China

The things I took for granted in our previously safe, and super convenient world of 24/7 deliveries suddenly became alarmingly conspicuous by their absence. It’s certainly reminded me that simple food items are precious, and I’ve never missed ginger, butter, or my Ayi so much!

But Shanghai is resilient, and I’ve been humbled by the communities of amazing people in this city who have set up group-buying solutions to ensure fresh vegetables and meat for all, to take care of elderly residents, and reach out to me, a foreigner they don’t know, to check if I need anything. But there is a palpable tension in the community group chats I belong to as anxiety heightens and lockdown seems to roll on without end. And this is where I feel my own mental wellbeing tested as I enviously watched a few buildings being released this week knowing that I’m still too many days away from the luxury of stepping foot outside my compound.

WFH certainly has advantages, and I’m enjoying a commute-free existence and time to focus without distraction. But many colleagues are managing larger households with more pressure on food supplies. The constant scouring for food and home supplies are in itself a full-time job.  This has a very real impact both on focus and productivity, therefore we are keeping connectivity fluid, agendas tight, and avoiding long unnecessary conference calls to optimise time as best we can.

Overcoming shyness, and a reluctance to ask for help is a challenge, so we make sure everyone is contacted by their line managers on a regular basis to ensure no one is without a friendly face to talk to. And in the face of food supply limitations, food parcels have been sent to anyone who is in need, and our admin team has taken on logistic skills that seem superhuman at times.

Amon Jiang, CFO, McCann Worldgroup China

For me, the biggest challenges are from my kids taking online courses and food sourcing. Like most people under lockdown, I joined tons of WeChat groups for group-buy purposes. Naturally, it has opened a door to communicate and collaborate with so many neighbours we've never met before. The connection, trust, encouragement and support among people is the most amazing and beautiful part, which actually helps me to relieve my stress and anxiety.

I am also a volunteer in my community to walk neighbours’ dogs, a great job during this time allowing me to take a deep breath outside and have fun with those little cute friends.

At work, it requires multitasking especially when you have two kids taking online courses at home. I will arrange urgent tasks and online meetings in the morning, keeping my room locked so that I can concentrate and focus. In the afternoon, I'll have a break each hour, take a Covid test, source food, do volunteer work, and continue taking care of the kids. For work not completed in the afternoon, I try to finish it in the evening after the kids go to sleep. 

Catherine Law, senior executive producer, Sweetshop China & Asia

I am taking each day as it comes. It is challenging for sure, but I think this lockdown is necessary until the situation is steadier. The sooner it’s under control, the better. I'm lucky that I had the foresight to store enough food and water and that I enjoy working from home. I have a good personal support network too—we’re all looking out for each other. What I'm looking forward to is a walk in the fresh air when this is all over.

Adapting our pre-Covid ways of running productions and jobs is nothing new. We’ve been doing this for sometime now. My team and I cover all of Greater China and Asia and we are all very used to working remotely, so it feels like we have eased back into remote directing and remote shooting very quickly.

Technologies that have been improved over the last few years and are available for us to use on set allow directors, producers, agencies and clients to view a livestream direct from the camera, including audio if need be. With additional production camera feeds set in certain angles and areas of the sets, we always try to give anyone who isn’t there the best possible feeling of being immersed in the shoot, whatever we are shooting.

Pete Lin, North Asia CEO, We Are Social 

I worry most about the wellbeing of We Are Social Shanghai's employees. It's frustrating to not be able to consistently provide groceries for them because of logistics. Taking care of their mental health is easier, and we have implemented some ad hoc programmes such as Zoom exercise sessions and meditation lessons to help reduce the sense of isolation and despair.

The inability to travel is wreaking havoc on my plans. I was hoping to select a new office space in Shenzhen this month, because we have plans to open a new office there. Now, that plan has been pushed back and I have no way to plan for a new date. Client payments are starting to become a problem too, because some clients have no access to their banking tools, which are locked up in their offices.

Sandy Wu, managing director, Saatchi & Saatchi Shanghai 

We’ve been on WFH mode . As a working mom, I have to work online and take care of  my five-year-old son at the same time. Therefore, an efficient plan was needed, before chaos ensued! The first thing on my list was to take care of my son’s learning activities and his daily routine. My husband and I created a gap in-between our meetings, so we could take turns in being a 'teacher'.

As things got worse, we quickly contacted local farmers and ordered a full box of vegetables for our employees who required supplies. Fortunately, all the goods were delivered right before Shanghai’s full lockdown started at the end of March. I’m also one of the group-buy leaders—I help neighbours to buy milk and eggs. I started by contacting the vendors and setting up an order form on WeChat; then I managed the payments and arranged other volunteers to help with the distribution. We even set up an efficient plan to regulate purchase categories and frequency, as to prevent our volunteer and property service team from overworking.

Being an advertiser, I suppose, coping with uncertainty has been injected in my DNA. Even under these lockdown circumstances, I believe we’ll all be okay and ready to embrace re-opening day when it arrives.

Bryce Whitwam, adjunct instructor, integrated marketing & communications, New York University Shanghai 

I count myself as one of the lucky ones. Because I live in a small compound, the neighbours have banded together to buy food and avoided engaging the government’s useless neighborhood committee. One neighbour hunts for food opportunities while another helps collect names, posting the group-buy opportunities on the community WeChat groups throughout the day. 

It’s all hit and miss on what you can find. For days we couldn’t find any rice, but suddenly a neighbour found it being sold somewhere so we submitted our group-buy.  When the rice came we gave a bag to the guards in our compound. We want to make sure they are all fed because we know they have it much worse than we do. For me, as an instructor, classes have moved online. As a marketing consultant, all my projects were immediately put on hold. All my freelancer friends are feeling the pinch too now.

 Lylah Juinio, managing director & global hub head for Mars, BBDO Shanghai China

I feel so blessed for the loving neighbours we have gotten to know who have offered care in every possible way. All of us for each other. A beautiful reminder of how our strength is in each other.

The muscle memory from how we dealt with the virus situation in 2020 immediately kicked in. There’s less concern about agility, efficiency and productivity. I am particularly sensitive about how each of us are trying to keep up with work while navigating this intense lockdown, food challenges and the fear of the unknown. This has shifted the focus on how we support our teams through this challenging time.

Matthew Cheng, president and CEO, DDB China Group

The city-wide lockdown in Shanghai is having a significant impact on both our business and personal lives. For me, the top priority is making mental, physical, and work-related adjustments to deal with any unexpected changes. For example, I have changed my living room into a personal gym to work out every morning and maintain physical fitness in preparation for my working day.

And after hours, I make a point to stay in touch with my family and friends and always try to stay positive, both emotionally and psychologically.

At work, I stay in contact with our teams and pay close attention to what they need and how to best tackle their daily challenges. My time is used more effectively. Working from home during the lockdown means I save time on travelling between meetings. I have found that online meetings increase the efficiency and progress of each project. I have also adapted my work schedule to accommodate the time and frequency of the government's Covid testing during the lockdown period.

It’s natural to feel stressed and anxious during this time. It’s vital to take care of ourselves and build strength and resilience to cope with uncertainty. I hope my advice on balancing work and personal time can inspire others to do the same.

Evelyn Hsu, senior marketing and PR director, MediaMonks North Asia

This has made me realise how efficient a human being could be. While the boundary between work and life is blurring these days, I do appreciate the extra time that I get to spend with my little one. I cook while she is watching me and being my assistant; I work on my laptop while she is reading her books and we are now the ‘Switch Zumba game sisters’ and ‘burpee buddies’.

I still spend 10 minutes on quick makeup before starting the workday, I put the phone away after 10:30pm, I do 20 minutes of meditation before going to bed. These little things are my daily rituals against the world out there.

In terms of work life, I used to prioritise work before life on normal working but now I try to arrange my meetings that work arounf my kid’s online classes. And I welcome early morning meetings more than ever—as I need to wake up early anyway. But of course, I miss our big new office with adults, sunshine, greens and pets. And yes, a proper working station.

Campaign Asia

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