Right now, some nations around the world are slowly emerging from lockdown. Yet with Covid-19 still a threat, governments are urging those who can work from home to continue to do so. So does that apply to creative agencies?
Well, yes and no. Technically speaking, most agencies have been able to continue by working from home and holding meetings via video calls. But as far as the “creative” part goes, that’s been a little trickier.
“It’s the camaraderie, the culture of the company that I miss,” says Brien Holman, partner at We Are Royale, a creative production agency with offices in LA and Seattle. “Every water cooler conversation, every quick game of Street Fighter, is an opportunity to collaborate and chat about what everyone’s working on. We’re also big on having team lunches together, celebrating birthdays in person, and enjoying the dog-and-human dynamic in the office.”
Oli Yeates of Clicky, a digital agency with offices in Chester, Nottingham and London, agrees. "Even though communicating remotely is working well, it does require extra work," says the CEO. "I love the collaboration of the team all being in the same space. I like the pace of sharing the same physical space and the ease in which we can control our culture."
It’s a story you hear up and down the creative industries, and is as true for small firms as well as large ones. “Even though we’re just two people, I’ve still missed the physical connection,” says Abigail Baldwin, creative director at Buttercrumble, a graphic design and illustration agency in Leeds. “There’s a greater sense of camaraderie when we're collaborating together in real time. If I have a question, I can turn around and ask it. I’m also craving a change of scenery. The office is a motivating environment, whereas home can be more challenging.”
So does that mean every creative agency is keen to get back to their physical studio as soon as possible? Not exactly. We canvassed a variety of firms in the UK and US, and they present quite a mixed picture.
When are studios reopening?
In the UK, many businesses are permitted to return to their premises from this Saturday (4 July). And some agencies are taking that as their cue to get back to the studio, albeit with a degree of caution.
Buttercrumble, for instance, has set a preliminary date of next Tuesday (7 July), although they plan to review this decision this coming Friday. Meanwhile Clicky plans to reopen for a limited number of people around the third week of July. “We’re purposely staying a few weeks behind the government on this, to ensure it’s as safe as possible,” says Yeates.
Others are yet more cautious, such as branding agency Evolve. “We work in Soho Works in London, a workspace occupied by different agencies and disciplines across all sectors,” says senior account manager Carla Pia. “But although it’s now re-opened, we’re still a little hesitant about returning full-time.”
Why so? Because despite putting well-thought out safety policies in place, "it doesn’t have the same atmosphere now, and not everyone has decided to come back,” she responds. “The benefits that the space provided have been slightly lost due to the inability to have meetings, given the social distancing measures in place. So we’ve decided to meet a minimum of twice a week. Luckily, we're a small team so we can meet in outdoor space, and there’s no rush to get back to our physical workspace.”
London design agency Stormbrands is also taking a gradual approach. “I envisage our return to be phased,” says operations director Simon Hartley. “We have offices in London and Leeds, and for each we’ve had to factor in the employee's commute – be it car, train, tube or cycle – office size, and the number of people we can physically accommodate when socially distancing. So there’s definitely going to be a mix of remote working and studio working as we gradually get back to normal.”
It’s a similar story on the other side of the Atlantic. We Are Royale, for instance, are in no rush to reopen. “With everyone working remotely, we’ve proven that we can run a successful shop while still hitting the creative bar set by our clients, and by us,” says Holman. “So right now, we’re considering opening only to those core team members whose proximity to the server and the render farm helps with their efficiency. CG artists and compositors, for example, deal with numerous passes that are a bit unwieldy to upload and download remotely. For them, having access to the studio will speed up their workflow.”
It's a mixed picture, though, because different states are at very different points in the lockdown curve. For example in Oklahoma City, where two-person brand innovation agency Wolves Not Sheep is based, restrictions began to relax as early as April. "During the enforced shelter at home period we each worked from home," recalls co-founder Chris Williams. "But soon after the restrictions lifted, my partner returned to the office. He doesn't have a home office and lives within walking distance of our premises, so we agreed to have me remain at home so he could retreat there."
Conversely, in New York, one of the cities hardest hit by the virus, creative post-production company Hooligan are not expecting to open up again until August. “We’re concerned there may be a second wave of Covid, and we want to make sure we can set our space up safely,” explains partner Kane Platt. Indeed, for most agencies, it’s making their workspace safe that’s the main issue right now, regardless of the specific date of return.
How will studios be made safe?
At Clicky, safety is front of mind right now, says Yeates. “Our headquarters holds around 50 people, but we’ll be limited by numbers on a daily basis, possibly up to 15 per day,” he explains. “And so we’ll be allowing everyone to work from home until 2021. We’ll be fitting out the office with various social distancing notices: tape, signs etc. And we’ll be asking the team to sit apart, to try to use one desk, and to share each bathroom with a limited pool of people.”
We Are Royale, too, is taking safety seriously. “Even before the quarantine hit and the stay-at-home order was in place, we’d begun to increase how often and how thoroughly the space was cleaned,” says Holman. “This will be further increased, plus physical distancing will need to be in place to ensure everyone has their own space. This further cements that we can’t have the entire studio back in the same office; we’ll need to stagger. And masks will be a must. We’re also looking into options for additional safety, such as building separators between artists and the front desk.”
All the agencies we spoke to are taking steps along these lines: even those that only have two regular staff members like Wolves not Sheep. “We'll be practising social distancing and stocking hand sanitiser at our desks,” says Williams. “We'll also be wearing masks for any shared trips out of the office.”
Will face-to-face client meetings resume?
Masks or no masks, being able to meet clients face-to-face once more is a tantalising prospect. That said, it’s still early days, and everyone seems to be remaining very cautious for now.
“Very few of our clients have asked about meeting face to face yet,” says Yeates at Clicky. “Video calls seem to be doing the job for now. And we won't be asking the team to visit clients if they are not comfortable doing so. But we will keep an eye on it over the next few weeks.”
Kendra Eash at New York creative production studio And/Or tells a similar story. “No one is pushing face to face meetings aggressively right now,” she says. “But it'll be nice to start floating it as an option once we’re back in the office – which we’ve scheduled for the second week of September – and we have a better handle on how the state and country is doing in terms of cases and infection rate.”
As for Evolve, “some of our foreign clients are ready to meet, particularly the ones in Spain who are in a later phase of lockdown easing,” says Pia. “In the UK, though, they aren’t ready just yet, although we have seen email mentions of ‘in a couple of weeks’. I think the changes to the measures on 4 July will make a big difference. We have already managed to meet the odd client in the park over a couple of beers, which has been great.”
When will filming start again?
Of course, the need to meet clients will depend on having work in the first place. And for those providing post-production services, that will largely depend on how soon anyone can start filming again.
That’s the biggest concern at Hooligan, which specialises in commercials, television, film, and digital content. “We've been surprisingly busy but very little production means way less post, so we have seen a slowdown compared to previous years,” says Platt. “We are hoping this turns around soon but right now, we just don't know when."
In broad terms, he expects the current push for motion graphics and animation will shift back towards live production over the next six to 18 months. But this still won’t mean everything goes back to pre-March norms.
“I expect that we’ll do more work connecting with creative teams remotely, and I think more agencies will be supervising their shoots remotely,” Platt believes. “This will both save time and money, and add an extra level of safety. I do worry that production standards may drop, as we've seen so much shot on phones recently, but I'm really hoping that this is only temporary.”