At the time of writing, Los Angeles County had 303,000 active cases of Covid-19. This in a state with 923,000 active cases and in a country with 8.93 million cases.
Restrictions are easing in many US states, but the pullback on Wall Street this week served as a reminder that confidence of the pandemic subsiding remains precariously balanced.
It is in the context of this uncertainty that New Zealand advertising agency Special Group decided to turn the page to a new chapter in a story that began in the ruins caused by the global financial crisis.
The agency's local bosses Michael Redwood and Tony Bradbourne today confirmed that they would be opening their first US office in Los Angeles.
This follows on from the agency's Sydney arm, started six years ago, which now employs 55 staff, and has established itself as an independent agency not to be ignored when its name appears on a pitch list. Special also this year opened an office in Melbourne.
This approach of a Kiwi agency launching international offices flips the usual script of global networks muscling their way into New Zealand by pouring money into local offices that quickly gain a competitive advantage over local players.
On the rare occasion a local independent does grow to a decent enough size to go toe to toe with the bigger network agencies, it's usually snapped up and merged into one of the big four holding companies: WPP, Publicis, Interpublic and Omnicom.
There have long been rumours about the Special Group team looking to cash in on what they've built, but the exact opposite keeps coming to fruition.
"It was just a crazy dream to begin with," admits Bradbourne, who also serves as the chief creative officer at the New Zealand arm, which also employs around 55 staff.
"But, from the start, we wondered whether we could turn the marketing world on its head ... That started with the Sydney office, then we opened in Melbourne about six weeks ago and now we're going into LA, which is one of the largest advertising markets in the world."
Each office is set up to be independent, with local shareholders in their respective markets.
"You need people to treat it like their own business because it is their own business," says Bradbourne.
"Our local founders are vested in the performance of business personally and financially. What that means is that they treat is as their own. It also means that we don't have to be involved in everything."
The agency bosses wouldn't reveal how much of a stake the local founders are given from the outset, but did confirm that the New Zealand arm retains a controlling share of all the companies established abroad.
To build the Los Angeles agency from the ground up, Special Group recruited William Gelner as the founding partner and chief creative officer. He's currently supported by a team of around 14 working on a variety of projects, but he's confident of growing quickly.
Gelner has done this dance before, being invited in 2007 to help start 180LA – an agency that grew out of the Great Recession into a creative force that eventually employed 150 staff.
He has more recently worked on campaigns for the Michael Bloomberg presidential campaign, as well as making ads for the Lincoln Project, a notable Republican thorn in Donald Trump's side.
There are parallels here with Special Group New Zealand and Gelner's work at 180LA, with both being forged in the fires of the financial crisis.
The impact of a global pandemic has, however, made a difficult commercial challenge look downright treacherous.
A global study of 1361 chief marketing officers released by the Dentsu network this week revealed that 62 per cent of those surveyed planned to cut or hold marketing budgets flat next year.
This would give an agency boss reason to sweat in a normal year, but it's compounded in the context of total US ad spend dropping from US$79.4 billion in the first half of last year to US$64.2b this year, according to research firm Kantar.
While the figures are expected to recover over time, the resurgence of the virus in recent weeks has cast doubts over how long that might take or whether overall ad spend will return to levels seen before the impact of Covid-19.
Gelner was bullish when asked whether it was a good idea to launch an agency at this strange time in history.
"Why not start a new, modern agency that's built right from the beginning?" Gelner said to the Herald.
"[The alternative] is trying to change a legacy model that's fundamentally unable to serve what clients want and need today. Doing that seems way crazier to me."
Gelner added that he wasn't intimidated by the reluctance of marketers to open their purse strings as liberally as they did before.
"We're well suited for ambitious brands and CMOs looking to do more with less. Special brings together smaller, more agile and freakishly talented teams together from all over the world. It allows us to quickly get around business problems and deliver work that truly resonates in culture."
He points to the work the agency has done with its founding client Uber Eats as evidence that clients are willing to spend if they believe in a creative concept enough.
The idea, which features celebrities feuding over their meal choices under the banner of a platform called "Tonight I'll be eating", originated at Special Group Australia but it has since been rolled out in Japan, Taiwan, Brazil and Mexico.
The US version of the ad, the first piece of creative work by Special's Los Angeles crew, carries the star power one would expect to see from an agency that shares its habitat with royalty of Hollywood in bringing together Star Wars' Mark Hamill and Star Trek's Patrick Stewart. The aim, of course, to ignite a bit of competitive banter between the fans on either side of the sci-fi divide.
Having got their teeth into this project and a few others, Gelner says the team is growing accustomed to the complexity of working through endless lockdowns and restrictions as the US continues to grapple with the virus.
"Being forged during this time, we don't know any other way to operate," says Gelner.
"While a little awkward sometimes, we have successfully completed five shoots and are about to do three more in the coming weeks. We collaborate almost daily with people from all over the globe - Sydney, Auckland, LA, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Toronto, many of them all at the same time. Technology has its upside sometimes."
Redwood takes this point further, saying that a silver lining amid the lockdown chaos has been the break down of tyranny of distance that has long limited New Zealand to the tiny place at the bottom of the world that happens to do some interesting creative work.
"It just doesn't matter anymore where you're Zooming in from," says Redwood.
"There's been a forced behaviour change this year that's accelerated the comfort people feel in using these communication technologies. It's just become the norm now."
Special Group Auckland has already reaped the benefits of this, picking up the Optus advertising account earlier this year – a major coup, given the usual reluctance of Aussie clients to engage with clients across the ditch.
Redwood says that while this is unique in New Zealand, it's already common for agencies in the United States to work with clients headquartered in states thousands of kilometres away.
"One of the most successful agencies of the early 2000s, Crispin Porter Bogusky, is based in Boulder Colorado. They just went there because it was a good place to live."
New Zealand's response to Covid-19 also gives us the advantage of being in a stretch of the world where work can still get done without too many issues. This could prove attractive to bigger clients elsewhere who are looking for certainty in the face of constant delays and disruptions.
In this sense, Special Group in Los Angeles is well placed to lean on its New Zealand provenance and collaborate with its Australian and New Zealand offices on bigger projects.
"We can fluidly work with talent no matter which office they're in," says Bradbourne.
"We can gather the right people with the right experience and the right talent to work on any business challenge. That's when it gets really exciting – when you get brains from Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland and Los Angeles all working on a global piece of business."
The cliché doing the rounds since the start of Covid-19 is that a crisis is often a good time to launch something new. There are, however, few businesses as willing as Special to put their money and effort into testing the truth behind the adage. The question now is whether the market is willing to buy what they're selling.