One year on: What the industry has learned from 12 months of the pandemic
From shock and fear, to adaption and evolution; a year on from the pandemic's arrival, in part one of this series, we hear from a selection of industry professionals based across the globe about how they and their businesses have coped over the last 12 months.
The last 12 months have been anything but smooth sailing. Even the jubilation felt at the end of 2020 - when we waved goodbye to a year like no other and heralded a new beginning - proved to be a false dawn as a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic gripped - and continues to grip - many countries.
Exactly 12 months on from when the UK went into its first national lockdown much of the world is still grappling with the virus, and so too are the industries that have been shaken to the core by the impact it has had.
I feel, collectively, we have been riding the wave and rolling with the many, many punches.
At the start of the pandemic we spoke to a series of people across advertising to gauge their opinion on how they thought the industry as a whole, and their companies individually, might be affected. Now, almost a year later, we get a snapshot of how people, and the businesses they run, have adapted to a tumultuous 12 months.
How do you think advertising has coped over the last 12 months?
Ben Golik, CCO, M&C Saatchi London: Thankfully, ours is an industry full of adept and adaptable people. After a short-lived sub-genre of earnest Zoom-filmed adverts, the industry has settled well into its dual role of shepherding brand and government communications through the pandemic. Never have so many new or nuanced messages been communicated so, in that sense, it’s been a great time to learn and grow.
It's been a rough ride. Budgets shrunk, but so did the thirst for adventure.
Kerry Smart, MD & EP 1stAveMachine London: Amazingly well. I feel, collectively, we have been riding the wave and rolling with the many, many punches. We all paused to assess the landscape and then were extremely quick to adapt to the new environment. Brands, agencies and production companies became even more collaborative, flexible and patient. And, finally, having the beacon of [APA CEO] Steve Davies guiding us was invaluable.
Sarah Emmanuel-Cheong, General Manager, UltraSuperNew Singapore: It's been a rough ride. Budgets shrunk, but so did the thirst for adventure. With the pandemic top of mind it seemed inevitable that clients would then stick to communications that were safer and more in line with the global tone of voice; one that was sombre and, to a certain extent, melancholic. I'm not in any way saying that this was the wrong route to take, only that it was one that affected advertising and its ability to create and inspire feelings toward the spectrum of euphoria or excitement.
Mindy Lubert, Director of Production, UNIT9 Los Angeles: ‘Pandemic fatigue’ has probably been one of the more difficult obstacles we've had to overcome. It's hard to stay focused and motivated when you and your team feel exhausted and burnt out. More or less, everyone is managing the impact of the pandemic, particularly on their work-life balance, differently. Adjusting to this new lifestyle has, in itself, presented a challenge that workplaces and its cultures are still working through.
The first few months definitely came with the odd bit of nail-biting and butt-clenching anxiety.
Stu Outhwaite-Noel, Co-Founder and CCO, Creature London: Hindsight is a wonderful thing and, 12 rollercoaster months later, it’s tempting to focus only on the ego-stroking positives of lockdown, of which there have been many. The pandemic gave us - well, forced us - to find new ways of working, a better appreciation and understanding of how work and life can co-exist, and that you can shoot an ad in Eastern European and West Coast America from the comfort of your Hackney kitchen. But the first few months definitely came with the odd bit of nail-biting and butt-clenching anxiety. For clients, for our teams, for our survival. But, as it turned out, as soon as we settled into remote working, what happened next was amazing; we embraced change and realised that we could come out of this a better agency and industry.
Above: Ben Golik [top left], Sarah Emmanuel-Cheong [bottom left], Kerry Smart [middle], and Stu Outhwaite-Noel.
What's the main lesson that advertising businesses have learned from this period?
Gijs Determeijer, Executive Producer & Partner, HALAL Amsterdam: That it's really dumb to fly all over the world just for a PPM, or a presentation of an edit. Maybe it’s even dumb to fly a DoP over an ocean for a shoot. I hope this makes people value local production and crews, and rethink sustainability.
Ruben Goots, Co-Founder & EP, HAMLET Brussels: That we are not an essential business and therefore have only a very modest contribution to make to society. That everything remains relative and we 'only' make advertising. That sometimes there are other priorities in life than an email that is not answered within a minute.
We are not an essential business and therefore have only a very modest contribution to make to society.
Kerry Smart: That people have lives outside of work.
Gilles Fichteberg, Co-Founder, Rosapark Paris: It taught us humility, and to never forget that a brand that dies overnight isn’t a concern for people unless it proposes a real service or has deep meaning in consumers’ lives. The pandemic has enabled us to refocus our exchanges with our clients and to concentrate on what is essential.
Tanya Brookfield, CEO, ELVIS London: Embrace change; it should be in our core DNA after all, as we’re supposed to be at the cutting edge of culture and understand changing landscapes better than anyone. Those that haven’t have paid the price.
Above: Mindy Lubert [top left], Gijs Determeijer [bottom left], Gilles Fichteberg [middle], and Tanya Brookfield.
From a business perspective, what's been the hardest challenge of the last year?
Stu Outhwaite-Noel: Boy, it’s been hard to not fall in love with the convenience that Slack and Zoom bring. We’ve found the unexpected challenge with remote working is, somewhat perversely, the efficiency that it’s provided. We’ve lost the friction that comes from working together in one place, and have become somewhat automated. The conveyor belt of Slack messages and Zoom calls has robbed us of the space and time to be more chaotically creative and to choose the less convenient option.
Added to this we have always placed great emphasis on ensuring our people are happy and enjoy their work, and we knew lockdown would only make that more important. We not only needed to make sure they were ok, we wanted to make sure they still felt like one team despite being in 30 odd different locations.Weekly Creature Comfort care packages, regular virtual events and talks, space for sharing random fun stuff, and longer lunch breaks were just some of the things that helped to keep Creature culture alive and well. If all else fails send people beer and doughnuts.
The conveyor belt of Slack messages and Zoom calls has robbed us of the space and time to be more chaotically creative.
Tom Denari, President & CSO, Young & Laramore Indianapolis: The challenge has been keeping tabs on everyone’s mental and emotional well-being, especially when those aspects of our lives are being compromised like never before. The good news is that we went into the remote work with a healthy culture full of people who genuinely care for, and look out for, each other. And, they did just that.
Angela Hart, MD, Stitch Editing London: The set up at home was probably the biggest challenge; we had very little time to organise it before the first lock down. It took some organising and was not cheap to set up, but once this was in place, we were good to go. At the beginning, trying to keep that feeling of company unity was difficult; the Friday night quiz really helped to keep morale up, as did our ‘Isolation Diaries’ film series on Instagram!
Gijs Determeijer: Pitching. For production companies this has been a sore point for years, but this year it was particularly painful. We always pitch a lot, and are lucky to have quite a decent balance of our wins and losses but, at one point last year, a lot of jobs disappeared. When projects die - no matter how valid the reason - it's ultimately the production company who pays the bill for the pitch. So, continuously seeing tons of pitches fade into the void was challenging.
For production companies [pitching] has been a sore point for years, but this year it was particularly painful.
Ruben Goots: The uncertainty. Not knowing how the business will evolve. Not knowing how the virus will evolve. Making sure that your people stay motivated with a positive outlook. But, above all, the responsibility that everyone stays safe in the working environment.
Ben Golik: While talking from the comfort of home has brought benefits, managing an agency spread across a hundred addresses is more challenging. An agency is nothing more than a group of people; maintaining culture and morale and, more importantly, keeping a check on people’s mental health, is harder without the benefit of sight. It’s harder to know who’s having a tough time, or just a bad day, when people put on their Zoom face.
Above: The continued use of video calls has proved that remote working is possible, but has also created unforeseen problems too.
What elements of the business have changed for the better?
Gijs Determeijer: I think trying to sell stuff with bullshit and fluff really doesn't fly anymore, it seems like everyone is a lot more conscious of what they are saying. I also think every business owner now realises their staff really doesn’t have to come into the office every day. You can basically work from anywhere and, you know what, people work even harder, and are more focussed, if you let them.
Trying to sell stuff with bullshit and fluff really doesn't fly anymore.
Sarah Emmanuel-Cheong: We've changed the ways of working within the agency to better accommodate people's anxieties with the current pandemic. We also allowed for more freedom for when workloads get overwhelming. Things like team-working from someone's home, where it's a less stressful environment and there are pets to snuggle with (this always helps - and if you were wondering, we're mostly cat people). This has increased productivity and decreased both negativity and pessimism leading to a steady stream of project wins in the never-ending pitch cycle of 2020/2021.
Angela Hart: As an editing company, the remote editing process has really opened up the market for us. We have now successfully edited with global markets and all from the comfort of our own homes, which would never have happened before the pandemic. This now makes London a very competitive market.
The Covid crisis revealed the fragility of the business.
Gilles Fichteberg: The Covid crisis revealed the fragility of the business. A thriving industry can find itself in trouble in just a matter of weeks. I think that, when you’ve understood this fragility, you have to get down to basics. A brand must be clear about the individuality of its mission. It must assert its sincerity, its difference, and use them to create value. Bullshit has taken a major blow with the pandemic and that’s a good thing for everybody.
Karim Bartoletti, Partner, EP and MD of Advertising, Indiana Production Milan: Let’s not forget that what we are going through is not over. Nothing has changed for good, everything is still changing as we speak. I think less people will do more things. I think ‘small’ will live side-by-side with ‘big’. I think it is the end of ‘big is better’. I think, in the production world, we will deal with a restructuring of the terms of our relationships with our directors and our talents. I think less meetings will start late because of CEOs or CMOs or directors being stuck in traffic, or on the tarmac. I think we will have less people come on our film sets to just “soak up the experience”.
Let’s not forget that what we are going through is not over.
Tanya Brookfield: So many! But flexible working is a huge one. Recognition and consequent reduction in unnecessary travel. And we’ve taken time to become a profoundly more people - and planet-positive business with our B Corp journey.
Above: Karim Bartoletti [top left], Ruben Goots [bottom left], Angela Hart [middle], and Tom Denari.
Do you think the industry will return to 'normal' once pandemic restrictions are lifted?
Stu Outhwaite-Noel: Absolutely not, and nor should it. Anyone ignoring the positives and potential the last 12 months of remote working has revealed has either their head in the sand, or is having an affair. At Creature, we’ve found the significant shifts in work-life balance, opportunities to open doors to people outside of London, and a chance to hang up our washing up between meetings, all worthy of serious further consideration. It’s why we’ve introduced the 3:2 system. Three days of remote working and two creatively chaotic and culturally enriching days in the office.
After 12 months, everyone longs for things to return to normal, and they will return to old normal.
Ruben Goots: Absolutely. I don't believe in all those theories about the ‘new normal’. After 12 months, everyone longs for things to return to normal, and they will return to old normal. We don't need to look into a crystal ball to see that. Just look at China, and a number of other countries in Asia, where the virus has almost been eradicated. Everything is simply back to how it was before, including the positive and negative aspects, no matter how unfortunate some people may think that is.
Tanya Brookfield: I hope not. We’ve learnt a lot of hard lessons and adapted in a much better way (for everyone). It would be a real shame to forget all this and slip back into old bad habits.
Gijs Determeijer: I hope it will return 50% to normal, in part because I think, for young talent (staff and producers), it is very hard to learn the trade from your bedroom. On the other hand, less traveling, less meetings and less network events don’t sound too bad to me! If we land somewhere in the middle that would be best for all of us.
Tom Denari: As much as we all criticise Zoom calls, they’re actually better and more intimate than the old-fashioned audio conference call. And, because of the homebound nature of Zoom calls, it’s knocked down pretence and brought additional humanity into our relationships with our clients and potential clients. The increased comfort of videoconferencing may have opened up our potential client geography beyond an all-day flight that may have typically deterred a client from working with us.
We’ll realise we are not in the ‘new normal’, but are actually in a ‘new abnormal’; where things might look like before, but will feel pretty different.
Sarah Emmanuel-Cheong: It's hard to answer that because it is unclear, now more than ever, what 'normal' even means. Do I think the industry will regain stability? 100% yes. We will because we are a creative industry and we will create a new way of communicating that allows for consumers to feel the campaigns in an effective manner. Will this be the same way as in the past? I doubt so. Will it be drastically different? Well, that will continue to change, just as it has in the past and will continue to as long as the industry exists.
Karim Bartoletti: I think when all is over and we start hugging, and shaking hands, and kissing in the streets again, we'll realise how our regained normality will actually be different. That’s when we’ll realise we are not in the ‘new normal’, but are actually in a ‘new abnormal’; where things might look like before, but will feel pretty different because we will be different.
We knew how to work when we were all together, we made it work when we were all apart… the blend will be our new challenge.
Ben Golik: The office is forever disrupted. Meetings and project teams will likely always be a combination of those present and those remote. We’ll need to work hard to adapt our spaces and processes to ensure the team on screen isn’t second to those in the room. We knew how to work when we were all together, we made it work when we were all apart… the blend will be our new challenge.