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Three months ago, no-one had ever heard of ‘social distancing’, ‘furlough’ or ‘Covidiot’. 

Now, thanks to Covid-19, those terms are part of our everyday lexicon. The coronavirus pandemic has forced the world into lockdown: planes are grounded; shops, offices and schools are shuttered; streets are empty. ‘Working from home’ is no longer a privilege but a requirement. Unemployment is soaring even as governments scrabble to prop up economies with unprecedented bail-outs for businesses.

As our days take on a groundhog quality, so too do the ads appearing on our screens.

As our days take on a groundhog quality, so too do the ads appearing on our screens. A sombre piano track plays over stock footage of empty cityscapes, cheery key workers and families in isolation while a comforting VO intones the brand’s history of “being there” for the consumer and the continued promise of help and support in these “uncertain”/“unprecedented”/“troubled” [delete as appropriate] times. 

Sound familiar? A recent viral video - Every Covid-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same - sums up the clichés neatly.

Build or struggle

Yet, is it any wonder? As the video’s creator, Microsoft Sam, explains, brands need to respond to the crisis – but with dwindling budgets and shooting restrictions, the easiest and quickest solution is generally slapping “the most inoffensive, royalty free piano track they can find” onto some “old stock b-roll footage”.

The brands who are not building during the crisis, are the ones who will be struggling afterwards.

Yet for every ten cliché-ridden campaigns, there’s a genuinely creative idea. Take St Luke’s beautifully simple reversal of the NHS logo to drive home the UK’s 'Stay Home Now' message, or Buzzman’s Menu de la Quarantine for Burger King, allowing people to satisfy their Whopper cravings from home. 

More than ever, brands are in need of creative strategy to navigate through these times.

That’s why a good creative agency is a brand’s best asset during these turbulent times, says Chelsea Steiger, Creative Director, FF Los Angeles. “Research from our office in Shanghai [which was hit earliest by the crisis] shows us that the brands who are not building during the crisis, are the ones who will be struggling afterwards. More than ever, brands are in need of creative strategy to navigate through these times.”

Click image to enlarge
Above: St Luke's created the ubiquitous SHN, reversed NHS logo while Buzzman's work for Burger King struck the right note.  


At London boutique Uncommon, conversations with clients have centred on two big questions, says Tobey Duncan, Head of Planning: how can the brand help? And how must they adapt? “Helping requires a tough look at a brand’s resources to see where they can be hacked or utilised to address the myriad of issues raised by this moment. Sometimes that means looking beyond your brand purpose and using your resources for new purposes,” he explains.

The brands that see themselves in the business of selling stuff will struggle to adapt.

A case in point is Uncommon’s client, beer brand BrewDog, which has repurposed its Aberdeen distillery to produce Punk Sanitiser for NHS workers and charities amidst a global shortage of disinfectant gel. Luxury giant LMVH is also manufacturing hand sanitiser in its cosmetics factories; while other bold brand moves include Spanish fashion giant Zara rethreading its looms to produce scrubs for hospital workers; the sneaker production lines at New Balance churning out face masks, and sports retailer Decathlon converting its Easybreathe snorkel gear into ventilators.

Those brands which solve problems or fuel deeper needs have a better foundation from which to interrogate how to reinvigorate, evolve or innovate.

On the question of adaptation, Duncan says this asks a brand to recognise that "for… a while we will need different things, and we will need to buy them differently. That is no small shift. The brands that see themselves in the business of selling stuff will struggle to adapt. Their future is tied to the demand for whatever thing they sell. The brands who define their role more audaciously will do better. Those brands which solve problems or fuel deeper needs have a better foundation from which to interrogate how to reinvigorate, evolve or innovate.”

Above: Brands such as BrewDog, Pret-a-Manger and LVMH have made themselves helpful during the corona crisis.


Think smarter

Answering this new breed of brief would be tricky at the best of times, let alone when marketing budgets are slashed and filming restrictions are in place, but this is an industry that thrives on challenge. As Dave Monk, ECD at Publicis·Poke London points out: “Restrictions are forcing us to all think smarter. Put any liberated thinker in a small box and watch them fight their way out.”

[Radio] reaches all ages, groups and demographics.

That might mean, say, pivoting a film script to a non-visual medium, which some agencies are doing. Grand Central Recording Studios have seen a “big jump” in radio bookings. “Clients now require a communication channel that is highly effective, that allows for social distancing and for productions to be turned around in quick time,” says MD Carole Humphrey. “It also reaches all ages, groups and demographics. Pre-lockdown, research showed 87% of the adult (15+) UK population listened to the radio, with the majority of listening time taking place in the home. This will have increased greatly.”

Restrictions are forcing us to all think smarter.

For in-house production companies, there is a real opportunity to “deliver value for the agency and clients by being creative and resourceful,” says Vayner Productions’ Chief Production Officer, Aaron Kovan, whose IHPC has been “editing footage from previous shoots together with stock footage, in-house directors doing one-man shoots from home studios or sending people kits with iPhones, microphones and simple camera rigs to capture user-generated content.”

Above: Radio is having a resurgence. 


User-generated content has proved a popular solution in the early days of the pandemic, led by emotional montages such as Energy BBDO Chicago and Jack Daniels’ With Love, Jack, and Facebook’s short film Never Lost, introducing its Community Help Platform. In Italy, one of the hardest-hit countries, Indiana Production are documenting the crisis via a feature film, Voyage in Italy, directed by Oscar-winner Gabriele Salvatores and featuring user-generated images shot by Italians on lockdown. 

Finland has classified social media influencers as key workers and collaborated with PING, the country’s largest influencer marketing agency, to push out critical government messaging.

Stock footage has also shaken off its negative connotations to become a more legitimate creative solution. Stalkr, the content sourcing and licensing specialist behind spots such as Google Year in Search and Apple Make Something Wonderful, is currently riding a “wave of creative”, says its EP Oliver Merchant: “There are so many fantastic ways to tell a story with existing footage that have nothing to do with ‘stock’”. Extending its foothold in the market, Stalkr has recently launched a filmmaker-led footage licensing platform catering for a range of budgets and turnaround times.

Attracted by the speed, scale and lower production costs, more brands have embraced influencer marketing, reports Emma Shuldham, Managing Director at ITB Worldwide. In a fragmented media landscape teeming with fake news, the high levels of trust commanded by influencers and their ability to reach a younger demographic are valuable currency: Finland, for example, has classified social media influencers as key workers and collaborated with PING, the country’s largest influencer marketing agency, to push out critical government messaging.

Jack Daniel’s – With Love, Jack

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Above: Energy BBDO's UGC spot, With Love, Jack. 


Get animated

The biggest beneficiaries of the crisis so far, though, have been animation and CG specialists. “Our proverbial phones have been ringing a lot,” admits Sam Gray, Head of Business Development at Passion Animation Studios. As well as working with agencies and brands to pivot scripts from live-action into animation, Passion has been helping develop completely new ideas in the medium, including custom-designed CG renders to create a stop-motion look-and-feel. 

We want to make use of this time to sow seeds with a longer-term mindset, rather than just making hay.

Across the pond, Hornet’s Managing Partner Michael Feder reports having moved almost 100 artists to remote working set-ups, allowing them to fulfil “a continued flow of new opportunities”, such as Covid-19 messaging films. Two of Hornet’s live-action/mixed-media directors, Kyle Bean and Andrew Myers, have home studios with fully equipped art departments, enabling them to create and deliver entire projects on their own. “CG offers a lot of opportunities,” agrees Fabrice Damolini, Managing Director at Mikros MPC, citing a project that initially envisaged integrating a 3D mascot in plates of live shot; MPC’s solution was to create the environment by reworking stock images.

Archive, animation and UGC won’t long be the solution to everything.

While current prospects may be rosy, the challenge, reckons Gray, will be maintaining momentum. “We want to make use of this time to sow seeds with a longer-term mindset, rather than just making hay.” As Davud Karbassioun, Global President, Commercials and Branded, Pulse Films notes, “Archive, animation and UGC won’t long be the solution to everything. Our partners are already asking us for new solutions to live-action filmmaking.”

Erste Group – #HannaBumblebee

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Above: An example of stop-motion CG render.


Quality over quantity

Remote technology is key to those new solutions, believes Katie Lambert, Global Head of Stink Rising. Cameras are still rolling in locations ranging from Costa Rica to Iceland (for an up-to-date list, see this site from Production Service Network), and remote supervision systems such as Stink’s allow directors, agencies and clients to connect into shoots from anywhere in the world. Pulse recently produced a commercial deploying several DPs (and their personal camera equipment) in a one-man/multiple crew approach, with remote oversight from the director and supervision from the agency. 

We don’t want to produce anything cheap just so we can rush it out as quickly as possible.

Back in the UK – and proving Lambert’s point that “production is about making the impossible happen, so whilst coronavirus certainly presents a lot of new obstacles, work can and will be made” - UNIT9 recently shot a PSA for Tesco via BBH London, with a skeleton crew of four. While admittedly the spot won’t be winning any creative awards, it’s proof of what can be achieved under the most stringent social distancing regulations.

Shooting in such straitened circumstances demands agile directors who are “used to leaning into limitations”, says Karbassioun, such as music video or documentary filmmakers, or, as UNIT9’s Executive Producer, Andrew Davies predicts, “those who’ve come from an editorial background or a camera or lighting background, who can work in small set-ups, with small teams, to still get a high level of production.”

We’ve been talking a lot about how to maintain quality in our output, not just making work but making innovative and excellent work.

And it’s that high level of production which remains key, even amidst a global pandemic, says Hugo Legrand Nathan, founder of Birth. “We’re primarily focused on live-action and we don’t want to produce anything cheap just so we can rush it out as quickly as possible: we need strong content.” Stink’s Lambert agrees: “We’ve been talking a lot about how to maintain quality in our output, not just making work but making innovative and excellent work.” 

Time to rethink

Diverse streams of revenue and hybrid models are advantageous, as UNIT9 can attest. “Film isn’t our overall prerogative, neither is digital, we work in a really integrated world,” explains Davies, “which is why we’ve been able to adapt our business to answer the problems out there.” Pulse Films, meanwhile, are reaping the benefits of a multi-pronged business by pivoting their resources to development: as Karbassioun notes, streaming platforms are now “desperate for ideas that will fill the fast-approaching void in programming schedules due to the inability to shoot live-action.”

Far from putting their feet up, many companies are ensuring they are match-fit for when lockdowns lift.

Smaller companies are finding solutions in collaboration. It took independent production company Spindle just four days to launch SpinOff, a network of collaborators providing isolation-friendly solutions to briefs, including an animation company, a team of home-based filmmakers, an archive and stock studio and remote live TV set-ups across the UK, and now, says founder/EP Miles Nathan, “it’s potentially the future of our business – at least whilst we’re all on lockdown.”

We’re using this time to rethink our business and design it for the future, a future we believe won’t look like the past.

Even the drop-off in business can be reshaped as a valuable opportunity for reflection on the past and planning for the future. Far from putting their feet up, many companies are ensuring they are match-fit for when lockdowns lift. “The much-valued commodity we gain during this crisis is time— something we don't usually have enough of given the break-next speed of business-as-usual,” states Diane McArter, President of Furlined. “We’re using this time to rethink our business and design it for the future, a future we believe won’t look like the past.” Connecting with business partners – from agencies and brands to freelance crews and service companies – to “gain a deeper understanding of each other’s capacities and discover new ways of working together” is central to that.

Above: Creative initiatives such as Caviar Connects have kept the industry connected.


Financial focus

Creative initiatives are also exploding across the industry. Stink has launched #view_finder, an open call for “creative responses” in any form from around the globe; Merman/Mermade is encouraging the next generation of filmmakers with its Kids Quarantine Challenge; and Caviar is running regular creative workshops in the form of Caviar Connects. “It’s a way to stay connected, to stem the boredom and stay sharp during self-isolation and the coming months,” explains Managing EP Sorcha Shepherd. “Anyone can submit an idea for a workshop, whether you're an agency, client, production company or post house – it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we come together and build an online community during these tough times.” 

It’s a way to stay connected, to stem the boredom and stay sharp during self-isolation and the coming months.

And there’s no doubt these times are getting increasingly tough financially. “Right now, we’re focused on trying to give people resources, when they are in survival mode,” says Matt Miller, President and CEO of the AICP. Though relief is available in the UK through the government furlough scheme (which allows companies to keep staff employed while the government pays a proportion of their wages) and, in the US, a $2tn (£1.7tn) financial stimulus package that was signed into law earlier this month, confusion about eligibility, access and implementation is rife.

Last month, [Miller] publicly called out the (conservatively) estimated $200 million owed to production and post production companies for completed commercial shoots.

To shed some light on the issues, the AICP is holding four remote meetings a week with expert input on topics from staffing to post production. 600 members joined a recent call where accountants, lawyers and US Chamber of Commerce representatives attempted to dissect the 800-page fiscal stimulus bill. Group learning and pooling of knowledge is equally valuable, says the APA’s Chief Executive, Steve Davies, who has been encouraging APA members to share experiences of negotiating with landlords and local authorities on business rates.

600 members joined a recent call where accountants, lawyers and US Chamber of Commerce representatives attempted to dissect the 800-page fiscal stimulus bill.

Government support is welcome, says Miller, but advertisers and agencies also need to play their part in keeping the production industry afloat. Last month, he publicly called out the (conservatively) estimated $200 million owed to production and post production companies for completed commercial shoots. Anecdotal evidence suggests payments are finally being honoured, but what the situation highlights, says Miller, is the hand-to-mouth existence of many businesses that is going to require a radical rethink if dialogues are to continue. “Awareness is an important factor, and for marketers and agencies, we’re reminding them that they need to look at it from the other side.”

Above: Social distancing will be required for sometime yet, even after lockdown ends, which has implications for film shoots.  

A new frontier

So, what is the future going to look like? The sad truth, as Caviar’s Shepherd notes, is that “for some companies, staff will be let go, salaries will be cut, companies will fold. There is no avoiding that.” For those that survive, they’ll be operating in a world that looks and feels very different. Michael Moffett, Managing Director, Production Service Network reckons the virtual video village is “here to stay”, and the companies emerging triumphant from the crisis “will have remote film production rolled into their service package.” With confidence growing in live-feed technologies, “clients will openly question if their marketing teams and agency folk really need to be on set”, which ultimately means less overseas travel and increased use of local DPs.

It’s widely accepted that social distancing will need to continue in some form until a vaccine is available, which has implications for film sets.

Even after lockdown lifts and live-action shooting can recommence, it’s widely accepted that social distancing will need to continue in some form until a vaccine is available, which has implications for film sets. Temperature checks for talent, crews in protective gear (masks, gloves, goggles) and regularly sanitised equipment might sound like something from a dystopian drama, but they’re de rigeur in locations like China.

Nonetheless, work will continue to be made – some good, some bad – and based on trends before the crisis, it’s increasingly likely to be on a project basis, predicts Nicolas Berthier, Creative Director at FF Los Angeles. Some mediums, like experiential, may never completely recover: while there’s still a risk of infection – however small – getting up close and personal at a festival won’t appeal. 

We need to decide what we take with us from this incredibly dramatic event, because we have been given a chance to reboot the world.

But as a result, other channels might get their moment in the sun: could 2020 be the year that virtual reality finally takes off? Vayner Productions’ Kovan thinks it might. “We’ll see less event-based projects where crowds of people are needed to make it a success… more virtual events, more live streams and more video content.”

Above: The post-corona world could see VR's time finally come.


We can mourn the immediate fall-out of the crisis – creative ideas destined never to see the light of day – but, says Publicis·Poke's Monk, there are brighter longer-term implications: “As we come out of the other end of this, a lot of old ways of thinking will be gone. And good riddance. Creativity will thrive and we’ll find new ways to communicate with a world whose patterns of thinking are no longer be the same.” 

A lot of old ways of thinking will be gone. And good riddance.

Opportunities for real change should not be squandered, adds Karim Bartoletti, Partner and EP at Indiana Production. “We need to decide what we take with us from this incredibly dramatic event, because we have been given a chance to reboot the world, the same way you restart your computer when it’s acting weird.” “In a new world where good thoughts, deeds, ideas and resourcefulness are the currency that’s connecting us all, perhaps this could end up driving us into a new golden age of creativity,” concludes Monk.

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