Lessons from China: What adland might expect in the coming months

As the advertising industry in the west grapples with the impact of coronavirus, we talk to a creative producer in Shanghai about what it’s like to slowly come out the other side

Maureen Sherrard working in her home office in Shanghai

Maureen Sherrard, a Chilean-Irish creative producer at Shanghai-based agency Goodstein, has experienced over two months of quarantine due to Covid-19, but is now seeing the city slowly opening up again, and work returning. We talk to her about her experiences and what we might expect in the coming months.

Creative Review: How did brands and agencies handle the coronavirus outbreak in China and the quarantine?
Maureen Sherrard: Everything happened during the Chinese New Year holidays when most people were off work with their families. Campaigns for that period would have launched by then and people where just getting ready to come back to work in early February. Sadly, that was not the case and everything paused for the best part of the month. There was a mandatory shutdown of offices that kept on being extended. There was a lot of uncertainty. No one went to their offices and this meant briefs, campaigns, and shoots were all delayed or cancelled.

CR: Did work continue to take place remotely? If so, how did this work?
MS: Yes, particularly with digital agencies. For the rest of us, this time was best used to plan the next few months and if nothing was happening, work on our own projects. We (Goodstein) usually work from home and are advocates of remote working. We don’t believe it is necessary to fly everywhere for meetings when you can easily do it with a video conference. We are very used to this. During this time, it was a matter of making clients comfortable with this ‘new’ working method. I’m sure companies like Zoom and Google Hangouts have seen some increase in traffic.

CR: Were brands putting out marketing messages during the peak of the crisis there? If so, what were these like? Did they talk much about what was happening or was this avoided?
MS: Almost none. Most brands had to close for at least two weeks during the peak, just like everyone else. There were however a few public welfare videos being posted. Some clients and their agencies managed to quickly re-think strategy and produced TVCs (or online videos) that talked about the virus. International Women’s Day also got some mention in the online world. All was done very low-key and produced in different places/remotely because of the production restrictions. Ads that were already in post production kept their timeline. In the past week you can see more brands re-starting their usual campaigns and TVCs are coming back.

CR: How did things evolve over the weeks of quarantine?
MS: It took a while for the government to allow offices to reopen. During most of February the government and local authorities were implementing safety regulations, from disinfecting offices to creating registration forms where people receive a QR code stating they have not travelled and have done self-isolation etc. And are fit to enter offices.

CR: How is it now? Are agencies beginning to go back to work or are they still quarantined?
MS: Yes. I’d say 99.9% of clients and agencies are back to work. Even if some still work from home. Some have kids and schools are still shut so everyone is being more flexible. But the good news is that things are moving. There are briefs coming and we are getting busy again. It feels great.

CR: How are brands responding now?
MS: Our clients and I’m sure most out there are eager and ready to get back and catch up with the time lost. There are still some restrictions with travel so shoots will be affected but its good to see briefs are coming in and people are getting used to the new working methods. Everyone knows social distancing is still important as no one knows if or when or how a second wave of the virus will come.

CR: What advice would you give to agencies and brands elsewhere in the world for how to handle this situation?
MS: The most important thing is for you and your colleagues to be safe and healthy. So please stay home. This is the only way for your brand or agency to literally save the world. Don’t expect everyone to work in the same capacity. This is a good time to force yourself to stop and think. For clients, trust your agencies. Give them time to think. No one knows how long this will take and we all have to be open-minded to new ways of working and communicating.

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