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Admitting that news that ad productions will no longer be exempt from UK travel rules is sure to sting. Steve Davies, chief exec of the Advertising Producers Association, (APA) lays out why it won’t stop production progress.

The withdrawal of the special immigration exemption for advertising was unwelcome of course, but it’s only one step back after several months of massive progress and we aren’t complaining about it. 

It made sense in the current Covid-19 conditions and within the context of international travel being restricted further to slow or stop the current rise in cases, and commercials production has proved to be remarkably adaptable and resilient.

From a period of little or no work when the virus first hit, as creatives grappled with what was safe to do, we saw a steady and in some instances above-average demand for production from June through to the end of 2020, by which point production companies as a whole (with allowance for variations between companies) had substantially rescued what had looked likely to be an appalling year.

There were two key factors in that. First, the APA developed and published 'Covid Shooting Guidelines', incorporating the law along with the best health and safety practices. It laid out a clear route map to managing productions safely, giving production companies, crews, agencies and advertisers confidence that they could safely and responsibly make commercials. 

Equally important was the Tripartite Covid-19 costs agreement created by the APA along with ISBA on behalf of advertisers and the IPA on behalf of agencies. By that agreement, advertisers would meet Covid-related postponement or cancellation costs - critical to getting production going as no insurance was (or is) available in respect of such risks. 

That created something of an amazing success story. Out of more than 3,000 productions by APA members, from when production came back to the end of the year, none were cancelled. Some were disrupted for different reasons, such as the director of photography testing positive and having to be replaced; clients and agencies understood that and were accepting of the additional costs that arose.

Each new government announcement of new tiers or new guidelines creates anxiety. This latest development – the rise in cases, the new more infectious variant and the announcement of a national lockdown (even though the position on working and shooting remains the same) – has disrupted progress. It has heightened anxiety generally and increased risk for the client.

So there has been some slowdown in production, for the first time since last spring, but it isn’t like the first lockdown. Many productions are continuing, with advertisers and agencies having justified confidence, built on the huge number of safe productions that production companies have managed under the APA guidelines.

The new restrictions on travel (no travel corridors and the withdrawal of the advertising production exemptions) have been another complication for some productions and another anxiety-inducing trigger, but they have not had a critical impact on production.

We won the exemptions following our long-running discussions with DCMS, who understand the value of advertising and commercials production generally to the economy and are keen to help. Those rulings were vital in getting productions from overseas here, such as getting overseas directors in, because if they came from a non-travel corridor country 10 days’ self-isolation was required.

The ’Test and Release’ scheme subsequently brought in, which remains in effect, substantially improves that because a person arriving into the UK can cut that quarantine period down to five days if they have a negative test at the end of that period. That is significantly more manageable – a director from overseas is highly unlikely to be able to come 10 days in advance of a shoot, but five days, particularly including a weekend, will be viable in many instances.

Of course, we hope the exemptions will be reinstated in the review on 15 February, because we would prefer to have them, but we will manage in the interim – first by reducing risk even further by having all involved in the production being in the UK for shooting, and then if there is an overseas element, relying on Test and Release.

Overall at the APA, we remain optimistic. Advertisers, agencies and production companies have worked together to create a success story and while the early part of this year involves a little detour, we will be back on that road again soon.

Steve Davies is chief exec of the Advertising Producers Association