Mid-year Report Card: Adapting, Responding To A Pandemic and An Epidemic
Agency community addresses COVID-19 and the push for racial justice

In assessing 2020 thus far, ad agency creative directors, executives and heads of production expressed profound concern over--and cited actions taken to address--the COVID-19 pandemic and the racism epidemic that are front and center in the public consciousness.

As coronavirus infection and death totals rise in the U.S.--as does awareness of systemic racism and the need to meaningfully push for social justice--brands are realizing that they can no longer stand on the sidelines. Rather, they need to take a stand.

National and regional retailers and brands (McDonald’s, Walmart, Target, Kohl’s, Starbucks) are, for example, mandating the wearing of face masks in their stores and restaurants--even as a number of states and municipalities fail to do so. And an increasing number of brands are speaking out for social justice, racial and gender equality and equity.

Verna Myers, VP of inclusion strategy at Netflix, affirmed that in the quest for social justice, being a good person and condemning racism aren’t enough--rather, you have to be anti-racist in your beliefs, actions and policies. Myers said it is incumbent upon us to “interrupt bias when you see it,” that this “is not the time to be a bystander,” that we must all move “from being neutral to being active.” And many brands have embraced this stance, meaning that agencies creatively have to be up to the task--and need to try to have their own houses in order when it comes to affording opportunities to all people regardless of race, gender and sexual orientation.

On the latter score, Hilary Coate, head of integrated production at Venables Bell & Partners (VB&P), shared, “As an agency we’re focused on improving the work, but perhaps more importantly improving the practices behind the scenes that ultimately drive the quality and representation in our work. It’s not as simple as checking a box of more diverse casting – but instead, looking closely at and solving systemic issues that exist to unlock better and more relevant work.

“We’ve recently taken several actions to step up our game. Earlier this year, we brought on Dr. Cheryl Ingram as our chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. We created a DEI advisory board to ensure greater representation throughout VB&P, we’re having very open discussions with employees about how we can improve our culture, and overhauled our recruitment process and mentorship to ensure that every new hire has the training and resources they need to be successful. We are also changing the way in which we work with our clients, and making significant process adjustments that will ensure that we ultimately get to the more inclusive work that we’re all committed to delivering. There is still a lot of work to be done, but I’m excited by the many positive changes underway.”

Robert Lambrechts, chief creative officer at Pereira O’Dell, observed, “If the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement is only on our immediate work, we will have failed to fully embrace it. Not to get too deep on it, but even though our work is commercial the creativity involved is often deeply personal. Beyond adding more diverse voices to the ranks of the industry’s creators (which is the most important, long-term proposition), this is a moment for those with creative decision making power to examine our own biases and bring a more empathetic approach to everything we do. If we change who we are as people, the work will be authentically impacted.”

On the coronavirus pandemic front, Jim Elliott, executive creative director at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, reported that his shop has been quite active. He related, “While there’s no question that this giant COVID-19 comet has knocked our industry out of its usual orbit, I’m proud to say that GS&P has adapted brilliantly. Within the first two weeks of the quarantine, we created 30-plus new ads and have continued producing work for more than 80 percent of our clients, thanks mainly to our robust in-house facilities. We’ve also stayed close to production companies in terms of their current capabilities and have been working well with many despite the challenges. We’ve been making a lot of stuff. I’ve actually never been busier.”

Diego de la Maza, EVP, head of production at Deutsch LA, noted that having an in-house production operation has proved invaluable during the pandemic. “Running a production company certainly helps,” he affirmed. “Steelhead offers end-to-end production and post services. We were already conducting a notable amount of remote work prior to the start of the pandemic. Couple that with our incredible team of ‘makers’ (who all have their own in-home studios), and we were able to continue doing full-service post work and smaller, live action, tabletop and product photography shoots. While we love working with incredible production partners, an asset like Steelhead afforded us the opportunity to continue creating high volume content with aggressive timelines.”

SHOOT surveyed a cross-section of high-level ad agency professionals to gain their assessments of the industry halfway through what has been an unprecedented year.

SHOOT posed the following questions:

  1. How have you adapted to the pandemic in terms of creating and realizing work for your clients?
  2. How has the call for social justice impacted your work?
  3. How has your client’s messaging evolved in response to calls to address inequality on racial, gender and sexual orientation fronts?
  4. What work (advertising or entertainment)--your own or others--struck a responsive chord with you and/or was the most effective creatively and/or strategically so far this year?
  5. What’s the biggest takeaway or lessons learned from work (please identify the project) you were involved in this year?
  6. Though gazing into the crystal ball is a tricky proposition, we nonetheless ask you for any forecast you have relative to content creation and/or the creative and/or business climate for the second half of 2020 and beyond.
  7. What efforts are you making to increase diversity and inclusion in terms of women and ethnic minority filmmakers? How do you go about mentoring new talent in the community at large and within your agency?

Here’s the feedback we received:

CLICK HERE to page through the survey responses, or click on the NAME or HEADSHOT below.

Name Title Company
Joe Calabrese EVP, Director of Integrated Production Deutsch New York
Hilary Coate Head of Integrated Production Venables Bell & Partners
Diego de la Maza EVP, Head of Production Deutsch LA
Sariah Dorbin Executive Creative Director Quigley-Simpson
Jim Elliott Executive Creative Director Goodby, Silverstein & Partners
Erica Fite Founding Partner Fancy
Phil Koutsis Executive Creative Director We’re Magnetic
Robert Lambrechts Chief Creative Officer Pereira O’Dell
Anh-Thu Le Director of Content Production TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles
Gavin Lester Partner, Chief Creative Officer Zambezi
Matt McKay Executive Creative Director Publicis
Amy Wertheimer EVP/Group Executive Producer BBDO NY


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