The Frank pitch didn’t start well. In an overheated room in Hercules House, a bloke from COI banged purposefully on a stop-clock and barked "Go!" It was Mother’s first stab at public-sector campaigning. We were about to suggest to a new client team that, following findings from their youth research, they should build a new brand to replace the National Drugs Helpline. To cap it all, we were speed-dating.
Ten years later, Mother, the Home Office, the De-partment of Health and the Department for Education have gone on to be the proud parents of one of the Government’s most audacious offspring: Frank.
Our pitch was simple. Forming a point of view on drugs can be difficult for young people. Each decade throws up its own drug types, lingo, party culture and anti-heroes – from the Jilted John generation of speed-lovers to the Haçienda trance dancers of the late 80s to the gangsta swagger of the coke years.
Young people needed a champion. Someone they could trust to tell it as it is. Someone entertaining they’d want to talk to. Meet Frank.
Like Charlie in Charlie’s Angels, you never see him, but Frank is always there when you need him with his signature tone of voice: wise, witty, never hectoring – a world apart from traditional anti-drugs messaging.
At Frank’s launch in 2003, the objectives were straightforward. We had to get young people to know, like and trust Frank. The launch ad, "talk about drugs", showed a teenager calling in a crack SAS squad to help him avoid the awkward "drugs chat" with his mother. It ended by famously inviting the audience to "talk to Frank".
Frank’s popularity grew quickly. In 2007, brand awareness reached 90 per cent of our 11- to 18-year-old audience (compared with 19 per cent for the National Drugs Helpline). Trust levels rose to 81 per cent, with young people saying they thought Frank would be more reliable for drugs advice than talking to their family, friends or GP. More than two-thirds said they would use the service in the future.
As fame and familiarity grew, Frank became more of a campaigning brand.
2007-2011 were characterised by attacks on the chemical bogeymen of the time: skunk, cocaine, legal highs, prescription drugs. Campaigns such as "brain warehouse" and "brain crashers" introduced a darker side to the brand’s tone, while a series of poster ads posed questions such as: "Is skunk stronger than badger?"
Millions of young people have sought out Frank, with nearly 3.5 million calling the Frank helpline and more than 35.5 million visiting the website
Cocaine was one of Frank’s biggest challenges. How do you take on a world rich with tacit celebrity endorsement and the indelible stain of cool left by years of rock ’n’ roll bacchanalia? The answer came in the unlikely form of a Colombian dog, Pablo. When we first met him in the launch TV ad, Pablo had been used to traffic coke as a drug mule and left for dead on a dealer’s floor. Understandably pissed, he set off to find out more about "the darker side of cocaine", delivering sarky one-liners as he sniffed his way through Cokeland.
Pablo’s success was instant – 62 per cent of our audience said they were less likely to take cocaine as a result. Amplified online by one of the first-ever Facebook fan campaigns, the Pablo page was in the top 1 per cent of all-time most popular Facebook fan pages and represented a highly effective, low-cost addition to the campaign.
Frank’s existence has coincided with a sustained fall in drug use among young people, from 28.3 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds claiming to have taken drugs in 2003/04 (when Frank was created) to 19.3 per cent in 2011/12. Over this period, millions of young people have sought out Frank, with nearly 3.5 million calling the Frank helpline and more than 35.5 million visiting the website.
Today, the Frank brief has come full circle. A new campaign launches this month, introducing the service to a new generation of teenagers. Designed to highlight the confusion many young people feel around the language of drugs, the "drug lingo" campaign points them towards Frank for the facts. One execution depicts a group of butchers passing around a joint of meat with the line: "Thinking about passing a joint around at a party?"
Another plays on the "A bad comedown?" line as a gymnast dismounts dismally.
Testimony to Frank’s success is the enduring impression made on millions of young people who have grown up with the brand. When I talk to teachers and youth workers, they often tell me Frank has become part of everyday playground patter. If a kid’s looking rough at school, their mates goad them to "talk to Frank".
None of us in the pitch room in 2003 had any idea we were building something that would eventually end up in the urban dictionary, support thousands of people on a daily basis and endure for more than a decade.
So, pardon the maternal pride when we say: "Nice one, our kid… happy birthday, Frank."
Sophie Spence is a strategist at Mother