For people sitting in Europe, the Americas and Africa, looking to Italy might feel like gazing into a crystal ball. While China, where the Covid-19 virus first struck, and other countries in Asia seem to be showing tentative signs of recovery, Italy is still in the thick of it.
“We have gone through the things that other countries are going through right now,” says Karim Bartoletti, executive producer of Italian production company Indiana Production. “Take advantage of that because it is like looking into the future. Read about Italy and then decide.”
That is the resounding message from the epicentre of the European outbreak. And while there are many positives amid their struggles, those from the Italian creative industries that I spoke to were united in stressing that coronavirus can’t be taken seriously enough by those countries yet to reach the deep lockdown Italy is in. “Do not underestimate this situation,” says DOING. ECD Hana Kovacevic, “and take all the measures needed to prevent the spreading of the virus.”
Lavinia Garulli, like many, wasn’t prepared for the utter transformation her life would undergo. Less than two weeks ago life in Milan was relatively normal. “Suddenly we wake up in a completely catastrophic situation. It’s something that can happen to you tomorrow,” says the Isobar Italy creative and strategy director.
“We should all not underestimate the scale of the problem, but face it with unity and courage,” agrees Lavinia Francia, creative director at Ogilvy Italy.
At the time of writing, the latest WHO situation report lists total confirmed cases at almost 28,000 and fatalities at over 2,500. But all the Italians I speak to want to praise their health service for coping with the rapid onset of the disease there. “We have one of the best healthcare systems in the world - not the biggest or the best-oiled machine - but definitely one of the best,” says Karim. He is also proud of the speed at which the country is rising to meet the challenge, expanding intensive care capabilities with normal people even donating money to ensure the system doesn’t collapse.
“We could have gone into lockdown earlier, maybe,” he says. “But it is always easy to argue things after the fact.” Regardless, he and those we speak to seem clear that the approach the nation is now taking is the right one. “We basically stopped the whole country from its everyday encounters and, at first, nobody followed us. Everybody thought we were crazy and we were being ridiculous and some people still do,” he says. But with most of Europe following suit now, Italy seems vindicated.
Extensive sanctions are in place across the country. Schools and universities are closed, all sporting events cancelled, every event cancelled for that matter, cinemas and theatres closed, social gatherings banned, all shops except for grocery stores and pharmacies are closed, offices are closed unless absolutely necessary, all gated parks locked so that people can’t gather. The police and army patrol the streets to keep people safe and calm and to make sure the people that don’t need to be out go back in. Everyone out of their home must carry documents and signed self-certification. The elderly are kept at home and away from all contact with family.
Karim appreciates that this looks extreme to those who haven’t reached that point in the outbreak. “You realise that it’s like being at war. It is all-pervading and all-changing and incredibly disconcerting and frustrating to realise that the best we can do as citizens, in this moment in time, is to actually do nothing.”
But the ad folk I speak to are not languishing in the face of this unprecedented situation. Lavinia Francia echoes a pervasive mood in the country of getting on with what they can: “It’s important to focus on staying safe, following the rules, taking hygienic and preventive measures seriously, and keeping an eye on what will happen next: we can make the most out of these days considering they are crucial to help our clients, our industry, and our loved ones, to face the emergency, stay safe and prepare for better times.”
Of course, business is not continuing 100% as usual. Karim was shooting in Palma when the extent of the outbreak in Italy became clear to him. That was where he realised that, “the business was pulling its hand break”. Italian clients and agencies were unsure of what action to take or not and production companies like his were equally unsure about what solutions might be feasible. Karim is on the board of the CPA - the Italian production companies’ association - and soon all 28 members unanimously decided to stop all productions in Italy until April 3rd. “We, as producers, ‘aggregate’ people in meetings and on sets from all over the world and therefore the fundamentals of our business were not able to guarantee the health and safety, the rules and regulations that the emergency of this pandemic is globally requiring all of us to abide by,” he says.
Karim is on the board of the Italian Art Directors Club, the CPA, running Indiana and is chair of this year’s Young Director Award. Each of these are on hold in some respect. “I have a lot of hats, but I am not saying this to boast, I am saying this because I have put all of my hats on the hat rack for a while. I like to move and shake things as much as possible, but you cannot shake and move things that are stuck in mud while you yourself are stuck in mud.”
Everyone in the advertising business has something to get on with though. And some have even more urgent jobs than usual. Even with productions on hold, Karim notes that brand storytelling will need to react to this new reality. “But at the end that is what we do, isn’t it? We adapt and we create relevant stories for our audiences and for our brands through the talent that we bring on board.”
Indiana is there to help with this and in the meantime is developing films, putting together deals and working with writers to create content for the future, when shooting returns. Then there’s post production, which continues unabated. “We gather online around our computers to edit and give opinions with the editors and the colourists and the artists. That part is actually moving along pretty much at the same speed as ever. Which is incredible,” says Karim.
Lavinia at Isobar has had an extremely busy time, even before the outbreak reached Europe. “Every kind of brand is affected,” she says. First the phone rang with Chinese clients and those who rely on Chinese business, particularly in the luxury categories. But once lockdown hit Italy it was the pharma clients, especially those who make hand sanitiser gels. “These are really hero brands now!” she says.
“Everyone responded with great courage, and many companies helped coping with the situation, giving free services or content,” says Lavinia Francia from Ogilvy. Museums and cinemas have begun sharing their content online, telco companies, gyms and yoga instructors are providing their services remotely and often for free in solidarity. 3D printers are even being brought to hospitals
to print parts for ventilators. “Many initiatives like these are popping up everyday. Everyone is trying to help,” she says.
Lavinia Garulli shouts out project called Solidarietà Digitale
(Digital Solidarity), organised by the government to share all of the tools people and businesses might find useful for, connectivity, entertainment and remote working.
Remote working has never been tested to the extent it is now, but agencies like DOING. are grateful for the tools they didn’t have a few years ago. Hana and her team had been working remotely regularly before, so the switch was actually quite easy. “Luckily there are so many ways to communicate now, sometimes it almost seems we are in the same room,” she says. “Organization and collaboration are crucial in this moment, and I have to say it works quite well.”
Lavinia Garulli stresses the importance of video conferencing in keeping “the sentiment of a group working together” and Lavinia Francia agrees that the time these calls take up is worth it. “It’s important to keep it human,” she says.
Other than that, most work the agencies were doing before the outbreak still seems achievable. “The schedule is no different than any other day at the office, and once you get used to it, it’s pretty easy to follow it,” says Lavinia Francia.
“I think the thing that we are not missing in this day and age is the technology that can make it possible for us to work remotely and easily,” says Karim, who adds that his days are now filled with “virtual meetings, Netflix binging, creative cooking, a lot of hand washing and self and home sanitizing, grocery shopping once every two to three days standing in line to get into the supermarket.”
Hana touches on the concept of a new daily routine too. “I try to keep active and to maintain a routine, organise an agenda as usual,” she says. Which isn’t easy with a four-year old child at home, she notes. Lavinia Francia’s routine centres around watering her plants, drinking coffee and checking in with her family.
Life in Italy looks unrecognisable compared to a few weeks ago. Karim says it’s hard to overstate how huge the change has been. His message to those who haven’t reached this point in the outbreak is: “to be conscious that there will be several revolutions happening in the coming days, things you never thought you would live through. Changing of habits, changing of perceptions, changing of interpersonal relationships, changing of rules and regulations and simple life moments. It is incredible.” Culture has even evolved in Italy, with new words like the ‘furbetti’ - as he puts it, “the ones that think that they are more clever than others and walk around our cities as if it were any other day.”
“Of course, there is a silver lining even in this situation,” says Hana. Everyone has a little more time to focus on what is important to them, even if they can’t physically unite. Hanna is appreciating the chance to spend time with her family.
Meanwhile, Karim is alone in Milan while his family is stuck in the mountains. “I have not seen my family in several weeks, I miss them dearly. I am alone, seeing that everybody else is with their family enjoying and hating every moment together,” he says. But even he is grateful for the new gift of time. “Time is something we never have. But this global crisis has given us time. The time to think back and think forward. The time to do some of the things we had continuously left behind. The time to get scared about our future and revel in our past. The time to read, to watch, to stop. The time to give ourselves time to be with our loved ones and with ourselves. The time to figure out our business and our place in the business.
“As scary as that is, time is probably the best thing we are going to get out of this it-feels-like-I’m-in-one-of-those-disaster-movies-I-have-always-hated-so-much global Coronavirus crisis.”
Loneliness is particularly sharply felt in Milan, says Lavinia Garulli, who reminds us that the Lombard capital is home to many single young professionals who moved there for work and are now in total isolation. “The problem is keeping the mood positive,” she says. “It takes big resilience to stay at home all alone.” Milan is usually one of the most sociable cities in the world. The place is very proud of inventing the aperitivo. “The aperitivo in Milan is a very strong ritual. Usually you’re waiting for the end of your day to go out and eventually the end of the day arrives and you can’t go out. It’s very hard.”
On that front, technology has come to the rescue again. Karim notes that “video aperitivos” are becoming commonplace. “It’s crazy how trendy it’s become in a few days!”
For one of the most sociable countries in the world, rituals are changing fast. Lavinia Francia took part in a birthday party over Skype the other day, which she describes as “actually really cheerful”. And then there’s the singing from balconies which has been warming hearts the world over
. Lavinia Francia experienced this activity for the first time the other day. “It was really moving,” she says.
Karim explains that all this comes from the fact that “Italians are not very good at standing still.” That’s why there’s so much positive DIY content being put out on Italian social media. Even he, a fairly traditional film producer is now pivoting to become a social influencer. He says his day is “sprinkled with content creation of different kinds which I post on my Instagram and Facebook accounts to keep myself creatively busy and healthy and alive. I am keeping myself sane by experimenting on my social management skills, managing my own self-created content: imagine The Social Network meets Castaway. Who knows? Maybe I will get out of this coronavirus pandemic with a different career than the one that I had when I got into it!”
The two pervasive hashtags around all of this social activity explain the attitude of the nation: #iorestoacasa (#istayathome) is constantly reminding people to stay responsible, even when the urges for human interaction become strong. Meanwhile, the children of Italy are consistently using #andràtuttobene (#everythingwillbealright). “I want to believe the same,” says Hana. Lavinia Francia has seen a lot of this: “Kids around the city are drawing rainbows with chalk, displaying their drawings in windows, with a single message: ‘EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIGHT’. And people inside buildings are organising grocery shopping for the elderly, who don’t want to leave their houses.
“Humanity can surprise us in a good way. Extreme circumstances can help us shift the perspective from “I” to “us” in a very short time. You may not be part of the problem, but we can all to be part of the solution,” she says.
To sum up the mood of the moment in Italy, Karim gets a little philosophical: “I don’t think that there has been any period in time since the industrial revolution, in which society, globally, has been given a chance to ‘reboot’. We have been given a chance to reboot our societies. Like when you turn off your computer when it's acting crazy. And we can decide what our “computer” does when it turns back on. We are forced to stop for a period of time and we are forced to think. How we think now can either make us better or just make us continue as it was.”
Healthcare systems that have been neglected for decades may be re-evaluated, international solidarity might be bolstered, he hopes. “It would be utopia to think that all things will become better after this,” he says, but he hopes the industry might benefit too. “Some companies will understand how not to be dependent on the world, and some others how to learn from the world. Our business will not come out of it quickly or without a lot of scars, bumps and scratches. A lot of companies will not be able to handle the break in productivity and the ones that will survive will have to deal with all the choices that are going to be made when we start again. But the resilient ones will prevail and our creative spirit will get stronger for sure.
“Great things, great creative things, come from moments of distress. I am sure we will do great things because one thing this crisis will teach us is the sense of community - I hope. It will teach us a little more about how to be together and stay together - maybe without even touching one another.”