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The events of the last six months have been unlike any the advertising industry has faced before.

The world has been turned on its side by the coronavirus pandemic, tipping normal rules and conventions out of the window. Approaches to the business were forced to alter immediately; shoots were put under enormous restrictions, meetings were entirely virtual, and physical events were systematically cancelled.

Here, Steve Davies and Danny Edwards discuss the industry's reaction to the pandemic and, ahead of the Top 20 of 2020 showcase of the best work created across this most unusual of years, look at why the UK industry has reasons to be cheerful.


DE: Steve, this past year has been a tumultuous one for the world at large and for swathes of industries, including advertising, but before we doubtless discuss the challenges that have been faced, what positives do you think the industry can take from 2020 so far?

SD: Two types of positives: the resilience and adaptability of the industry is well known. [Commercials producers] have the most flexible business model for production companies, keeping the cost base as low as possible and brining in what we need for jobs. And, in terms of resilience, the UK industry lives – and survives - from project to project, with peaks and troughs in demand. 

We can see remote directing as being creatively viable in a way that we would not have thought possible. 

That is not to underestimate how difficult it is for production companies to get through this. For editing and post companies the challenges are probably even greater, in terms of scale. Their need for substantial, high-quality central London premises and equipment means their fixed costs are generally higher. They have the same resilience and positive outlook and it is serving them well.

Secondly, in terms of specific learnings, there's the possibility of reducing premises costs further by people working at home some of the time. I think they will still need and want offices, but it is a further opportunity to shrink those costs, accelerating something that has been underway for years, rather than a new trend. We can see remote directing as being creatively viable in a way that we would not have thought possible. 

Was the industry quick to adapt, to realise the limitations it faced and to work at getting client messages out there? Absolutely. Were they all of high creative quality? Well, no, not really.

Finally, in terms of reducing the number of people who come to set, clients and agencies can see it all from their home or office. That is to reduce the risks of coronavirus transmission, as per the APA Covid Shooting Guidelines, but it will also help reduce costs in the future, to get more of the budget on screen, and to minimise the environmental impact of productions, in line with our AdGreen commitments.

So, my first question to you: The industry believes it meets restrictions on what it can do with greater activity, most famously when restrictions on tobacco advertising resulted in iguanas in swimming pools and purple fabric. Do you think the industry has risen to the occasion creatively during Coronavirus times?

Above: The APA/shots Top 20 of 2020 is a chance for the industry to highlight the great work they've produced, often under challenging circumstances. Find out more here


DE: I think that’s a dual answer. Was the industry quick to adapt, to realise the limitations it faced and to work at getting client messages out there? Absolutely. Were they all of high creative quality? Well, no, not really. But the same would be said before this pandemic, and the same will be said after. The immediate push towards UGC, stock footage and Zoom call recordings was initially interesting, and often funny, but the joke wore pretty thin, pretty fast. This has been unlike any other brief most agencies would have faced though; to not simply sell a product or ingratiate themselves with their customers, but to seem - and in many cases, actually be - useful. 

This has been unlike any other brief most agencies would have faced.

The messages which hit hardest were those that achieved that. BrewDog and LVMH using their facilities to produce hand sanitiser right at the start of the pandemic; Co-Op’s FareShare food donation scheme; Pret a Manger offering free hot drinks to NHS staff. Certainly, at the beginning of this pandemic, brands had to tread very lightly and the examples I’ve given are not campaigns we might ordinarily champion from a creative execution standpoint, but they were what stood out in – yes, I’m going to use that word – unprecedented times. 

That’s not to say there weren’t some great, impactful spots made during this time as well. Work for charities, such as Refuge’s Maxine Peak-starring short film, and the Women’s Aid spot, The Lockdown, were a hard but powerful watch, and HLA’s ad for British Gas captured the chaos of lockdown but also its public spiritedness.    

The industry has learned to cope; producers are problem solvers, and in that sense Coronavirus is another production obstacle to be overcome.

So, Steve, if the UK is forced into another lockdown, or ‘circuit breaker’ as it’s being called, do you think the industry has learned how to cope with such a situation, or will it push the recovery back again?

Click image to enlarge
Above: Examples of brands which confronted the coronavirus pandemic by being useful.


SD: The industry has learned to cope; producers are problem solvers, and in that sense Coronavirus is another production obstacle to be overcome. There have been learnings too. Remote filming for example; previously no one would have used that except perhaps for a pack shot, but now commercials with creative ambitions are being directed remotely and producing results that everyone is happy with. 

Commercials with creative ambitions are being directed remotely and producing results that everyone is happy with.

The real issue is how clients will cope with it. More restrictions, like those announced by Boris Johnson on the 21st September 2020 make advertisers nervous- even though they are social restrictions and do not effect shooting commercials. So, we have to provide reassurance and promote that productions can go ahead. The real rather than perception problem is that some advertisers businesses are adversely effected by the new measures- leisure and travel businesses for example, so they will want to advertise less.

So, Danny, what do you think will be different about the industry moving forward?

DE: Well, as you've already mentioned, remote shooting - and remote working in general - is going to be something that's with us for some time yet. While that initially seemed like it could be a very hard thing to navigate, companies have managed brilliantly. So, while those challenges haven't been easy to overcome, it's already been proven they're surmountable, with no real effect on quality, in most instances. 

It'll be interesting to see, in six weeks or so, what the crop of Christmas commercials brings; how are brands going to respond to what's happened.

What's more worrying is the economy in general, and the potential reticence of business to spend on advertising when the world is in so much flux. It'll be interesting to see, in six weeks or so, what the crop of Christmas commercials brings; how are brands going to respond to what's happened and what messages (and money) are they planning to put behind their annual festive treats? 

Regardless of money, what I don't think will change is the quality of creative work that will be produced. Work from Cadbury, PaddyPower, Apple, Farrow & Ball, the Financial Times and IKEA has all impressed, both from a creative and production point of view, despite these new working conditions, and that's only a sample of campaigns from the last couple of weeks. 

Last question to you Steve; why do you think the Top 20 of 2020 is an important (though hopefully one-time-only) addition to the calendar?

Cadbury – Donate Your Words: The Original

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Above: Cadbury's recent spot from its Donate Your Words campaign.


SD: The industry events we know and love, and at which we get together - Cannes, the APA Show, the shots Awards, Kinsale, Ciclope - are all off this year. So, we wanted to show that the industry survives - and thrives, at least creatively - come what may. We wanted to find a way to showcase the best work and to do it in partnership - it is a one-off, with two awards events coming together to help the industry - by showcasing the best work, and to show our support by making the whole event free to participate in. We didn’t want to be asking production, post, editing, audio and music companies in commercials for money at these challenging times, but simply to support them.

I am looking forward to seeing the work and seeing how the creative quality holds up against the APA Shows and the shots Awards of previous years.

I am looking forward to seeing the work and seeing how the creative quality holds up against the APA Shows and the shots Awards of previous years, and seeing how many of the commercials reference or acknowledge coronavirus. I can see that it is good to do so, to establish an emotional connection with the locked down consumer, but I hope they aren’t all going to feature people on Zoom! 

Also, advertisers have grappled with whether to show people in a normal world, not wearing masks, or whether that would offend their audience. I don’t see how it would, personally, but we will learn a huge amount on advertiser thinking, as well as creativity, in viewing the Top 20.

The deadline for the APA/shots Top 20 of 2020 is Wednesday September 30. For more information about the show and to enter your work, please click here

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