This is how ad agencies in SA continued to make TV ads while under Covid-19 lockdown

Business Insider SA
Dont panic buy, Pick and Pay
King James shot their popular 'Don’t Panic Buy' celeb sing-along
  • In spite of the forced closures, businesses are still eager to tap into the country's increased media consumption.
  • Brands have been keen to remain relevant and show the public they care.
  • It is why advertising agencies have had to be more creative in ensuring they can still produce commercials with limited resources, and often limited teams.
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Almost as soon as South Africa’s national lockdown shuttered all but essential business, airwaves filled with ominous tones, eerily upbeat jingles, and stern presidential speech voice overs of lockdown-themed commercials. 

In spite of the forced closures, businesses were still eager to tap into the increased media consumption, as millions of South Africans were forced to stay at home.  

Brands also wanted to remain relevant, and show the public that they cared - presumably also in the hope that they’d continue opening their wallets, even as many were losing jobs and growing increasingly concerned about venturing into stores. 

“Clients want to be top of mind when times are good, they need to be top of mind when times are bad,” says Jared Osmond of King James Cape Town, which conceptualised and shot several commercials throughout the lockdown period. “But overnight the question became: how do you create integrated advertising campaigns that usually take the interaction of whole teams of people, without any of them leaving their individual homes?”  

Clients challenged the country’s biggest agencies to rethink how to shoot polished TV commercials safely, with drastically reduced crews, enforced social distancing on sets, almost no ability to cast, and, in some cases, by directing commercials from home, watching on from live camera feeds. 

Under normal circumstances, Osmond says the initial stages of campaigns like those they shot for brands like Sanlam, Pick n Pay, and TymeBank would have involved several face-to-face meetings, where teams could throw around ideas and brainstorm before taking them to the set. 

"The best creativity is collaborative, and the tried and tested form of collaboration is still by and large face to face. So producing commercials under lockdown was all a bit of an awakening," says Osmond. 

"If you’re all sitting in an office and there are long periods of silence, you can look over and see that the person is just thoughtfully rubbing their chin or scratching their head. But doing it all on a Zoom call is now just… weird," he says. 

The limited human contact also stifled creativity and spontaneity on the sets, says Osmond. 

"On a normal set you can just run over and whisper something into someone’s ear, something new to try out, and they’d give you one take with a script change in mind," he says.

"But now there’s no set, and ad libbing becomes a lot more of a process. Now you’ve got to type it out in a message or say it to everyone over the same call, which opens it up to group debate, and that can stifle the sparks that can lead to magic that you didn’t initially plan for." 

The tell-tale signs of a lockdown commercial 

To make allowances for the new restrictions, agencies reduced crews and used a series of tricks and techniques to hide any gaps the Covid-19 limitations might have presented. 

This forced several stylistic giveaways for those who know where to look - the increased use of graphics, reliance on archival and found footage, a rise in vertical selfie-style shots, as well as drones and stills are dead giveaways that advertising teams were forced to innovate. 

But perhaps the most obvious restrictions are visible in the way actors have appeared on screens. Almost all commercials shot in early lockdown feature just a single subject, a decision that Hylton Heather, production director at 99c, says was largely practical. 

99c shot some of the first lockdown commercials for their client Shoprite in a documentary style that limited the need for unnecessary cast and crew. 

"We decided to take a news approach, and tell the actual story of the person, which meant we were able to reduce our amount of crew," says Heather.

"And what this also did was lend an authenticity to the commercial that I don’t think it would otherwise have had." 

If agencies wanted to include multiple actors, they were forced to get creative by writing or editing the scenes to create some sense of normality - as was the case with the popular Road Block advert for King Price, which has been viewed over one million times on YouTube. 

But for Cameron Watson, a creative director at King James Cape Town, unless people were already living together and could somehow pull off a scene, they decided to work around it - either by using archival footage, unused scenes for the same campaign shot prior to Covid-19, or by cleverly structuring a script to avoid scenes that would be complicated to recreate. 

"The difficulty came when we wanted to show things like families spending time together - we couldn’t cast for that," says Watson. "In some cases those scenes didn’t exist in the clients archives, and we couldn’t bring those people together for the sake of a commercial."  

The casting limitations may not be particularly marked in the early lockdown commercials - which were also tasked with responsibly communicating the coronavirus message - but will likely become more difficult to navigate as advertisements progress to represent some kind of normality while still grappling with the restrictions.  

"I hope that the better stuff will still look like we had access to everything, and that it’s just been well disguised and curated," says Watson. "That didn’t happen in those first weeks, because we had to acknowledge the issue that everyone was dealing with."

Shrinking crews 

Even with limited actors on set, some crew was essential. Agencies shrunk the number of people on set significantly to comply with a comprehensive document put together by the Commercial Producers Association of South Africa on how to manage shoots during this time. 

"On the initial Shoprite shoot there were just four crew," says 99c’s Heather. "Under normal circumstances, we’d have had a crew component of at least 25."

Other times agencies used a series of clever techniques to overcome the restrictions. 

King James shot their popular Don’t Panic Buy celeb singa-long commercial for Pick n Pay with these restrictions in mind. And given the format of the cast singing directly into their phones, from their own homes, being central to the commercial, minor foibles were quickly forgiven, or even - in the case of a cheerful child marching around in the background of Zolani Mahola’s contribution - appreciated. 

Agencies also quickly adapted to the on-set limitations by directing commercials via live feeds from the comfort of their homes. 

In 99c’s latest run of commercials for Checkers featuring Suzelle, much of the staff were tuning in and offering suggestions from home.  

"We had a direct feed from the cameras, so we were all able to sit in our home offices and watch the shoot remotely, and we could offer feedback on specific shots as they were happening," says Heather. 

The same was true for much of the voiceover work that advertising agencies used during lockdown - most of it was self-recorded by artists with home studios, sometimes while decision makers watched on via Zoom calls to make changes and suggestions. 

Unexpected benefits 

Complex as the situation was for agencies, the lockdown restrictions also had some unexpected benefits - particularly those tasked with getting outdoor shots. 

While shooting a commercial for Sanlam, King James had teams on the ground in Joburg and Cape Town capturing footage - while many of the decision makers stayed home and monitored their progress via a dedicated WhatsApp group. 

"We’d comment on each piece sent to the group, and through that we were able to guide them through the process," says Watson. "Because we weren’t there in person, we kind of ended up being one step behind on the process, so it would allow the guys to shoot the next scene, and then come back and try the other one again if necessary. There was a little bit of lost time, but for the most part we were getting what you needed to get as if we were on set."

The deserted city streets also helped to speed things up. 

"Without any traffic, we were able to move around a lot more easily, so instead of getting one sunrise shot, we were getting four because we could shoot locations within that golden hour period without any delays," says Watson. "And we obviously didn’t have to worry about clearing a shot, because there were no people in the frame." 

Because everyone was plugged into the same system and communicating instantly via messaging apps and video calls, Watson says they were able to achieve much more than that expected.  

"There’s obvious benefits to actually being in a room with someone - working on a colour corrected monitor, or being able to discuss things and troubleshoot a lot more practically, for example - but we were quite surprised by the ease with which we were able to adapt to the lockdown conditions, and get everyone on board." 

Keeping relevant with rapid turnaround times  

Agencies needed to adapt quickly to the changing systems in order to ensure the content they were putting out was topical, and to represent how people were feeling at the time.  

To achieve this, 99c was going from concept to shooting within one week - a process that Heather says would under normal circumstances have involved at least a month of pre-production. 

The themes are also starting to shift to keep up with the easing of lockdown restrictions and as Covid-19 achieves a sense of normalcy in South Africans’ lives. 

"Initially the kinds of messages that we were putting out were a kind of zeitgeist of how people were feeling at that point in time. The mood was slightly ominous, people were a bit trepidatious with regards to what it was they were feeling, and what it was they were going into," says Heather.  

But agencies and their clients are now predicting that viewers are tiring of what Heather calls “the humdrum doom and ominous sounds of Covid-19 advertising” - the type of advertising that initially attracted the attention of online comedians and social commentators. 

99c’s new commercials, which feature Suzelle DIY, speak to this shifting focus of the current commercials, and possibly the national mood.  

"Once we got to shooting Suzelle, we were in the space that I think everybody had been hearing those messages so much, and so we were looking to put a bit of a smile on peoples’ faces instead,” says Heather. “It was an evolution of what we were trying to do."

"Overall Covid-19 has been a pressure cooker," says King James’ Osmond.

"It’s fast tracked changes in how the industry operates that were bound to happen eventually. ‘Eventually’ just arrived suddenly on the doorstep. Actually, more accurately, it kicked down the door."

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