Twelve months ago, the UK advertising market looked set for several years of continued handsome growth and the last thing industry observers would have expected to see in a TV ad break was Clare Balding giving viewers a guide to the functions of WhatsApp by video-calling Robbie Savage.
But that was then and, to risk an understatement, things are different now. It’s not just the huge changes to life wrought by the coronavirus pandemic that makes BT’s "Top tips on tech" campaign – also featuring the likes of Rylan Clark-Neal talking through the basics of podcasts and Angellica Bell on phishing scams – feel fitting, however. It’s also an obvious step in a project that began last summer to reconceive what kind of organisation BT was.
Back in early 2019, BT – requiring a modern visual identity that would be suitable for everywhere from smartphones to football shirts – was set to unveil its new look, having had a new logo in the works for several years. But when Philip Jansen became chief executive of BT in February last year, he saw an opportunity for brand refresh "to be a catalyst for something", according to director of marketing communications Peter Jeavons, who was named interim group brand director in May 2019 when Zaid al-Qassab left to join Channel 4.
Jansen saw the new logo "as being not just a change of symbol but a symbol of change", Jeavons says. The "something" was a daunting task: overhauling perceptions of BT as a brand associated with old technology and establishing it in people’s minds as a vital component of national infrastructure and an expert in all things home connectivity. That did not just mean getting a new message across to consumers – it also meant ensuring the group’s 100,000-plus staff understood everything the company did.
"The starting point was: what is our role and purpose as a brand and organisation, and what does that mean in terms of the job we’ve got to do from a comms point of view, both internally and externally?" Jeavons explains. At this point, he invited BT’s incumbent lead ad agency, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, and Saatchi & Saatchi – which already worked on BT’s mobile network EE – to pitch ideas. Later that summer, Jeavons appointed the Publicis Groupe-owned Saatchi & Saatchi to lead the creative work on BT. It was the first time in 23 years that this had not been handled by AMV, although the Omnicom shop continues to lead BT’s direct-response work.
AMV brought "great ideas", Jeavons says: "And, just stepping back, could you have bought those ideas as an advertising campaign? Of course you could." But Saatchi & Saatchi stood out because of the scope of its thinking. "We knew what we were trying to achieve. We were looking for an idea that was much bigger than just a brand comms campaign – an idea that lived and breathed within the business and changed how 110,000 people thought about the brand."
From the inside out
There have been four planks to the task handed to Saatchi & Saatchi: external comms; products, propositions and services; corporate reputation; and culture and internal comms. The first of these led to the new brand platform, "Beyond limits", while the second has seen the roll-out of new packages BT Halo and Flexible TV, as well as reintroducing the BT brand to high streets via EE’s store network. The last of the four was perhaps the most fundamental, though, because many of BT’s employees simply had no knowledge of the range of things the business offered.
"We all think of BT as a broadband company – and, before that, a phone company," Magnus Djaba, UK chief executive and global president at Saatchi & Saatchi, says. "Our bit was to open up the reality of this organisation. We felt there was this amazing organisation that does a plethora of things that touch the nation in every possible way." He points to the fact that BT processes every call to 999; its development of a 5G-enabled haptic glove to enable paramedics to offer more complex treatment to patients; its efforts educating both children and elderly people in technology skills; and the assistance it provides during natural disasters worldwide.
"All that amazing stuff – of course, the people working on it know about it, but it’s not something that permeates through the organisation and gives people a sense of the role and scale of what we do as a brand," Jeavons adds. "What this could never be was a comms veneer we put out externally – it had to be something that permeated from the inside out."
To get the message across to BT’s people, Saatchi & Saatchi created an internal film with some stylistic similarities to the advertising that followed and Jansen hosted an internal launch event for the new brand platform. The agency has also done work on the "employee journey" at BT, starting from the point of a potential hire becoming interested, assessing the potential "pain points" using the same methodology marketers use to analyse the consumer journey.
Saatchi & Saatchi also made the bold suggestion that BT should consider putting some digital screens in its reception – probably a sensible move for a business aspiring to be at the forefront of technology. More significantly, that ambition led to the creation of a team of 900 "home tech experts", who can help customers get the most out of their equipment. "You’ll get a visit from not an engineer but a tech expert who can do anything in your home," Jeavons say. "Twiddle with your router, put it in the right place, all the way to connecting up your connected home. It’s an incredibly exciting new service."
This was followed in March by Flexible TV, allowing BT TV customers to change their package month by month. The principle behind BT’s product innovations is "removing limitations of today to release potential for tomorrow", in Djaba’s words: "If you believe transformation is about growth, then the marketer becomes one of the most critical people in an organisation."
"New ways to grow will normally lead to more than just ‘Here’s some ads’," he says – but admits that trying to move beyond the traditional agency remit is a challenge of mentality. "Most category leaders try and keep the category as it is. Part of our job is to explain why [we should change it] – that is a hard thing to do. As marketers by nature, we have become the people that deliver the comms – when you decide to do more than that, there’s a bravery required."
Enter the virus
Bravery may not be the word, but there was certainly a lot of confidence demonstrated last month when BT partnered ITV to launch a series of informative films, each filling a full ad break, that were shown during This Morning and the early evening news.
Since the coronavirus outbreak erupted, BT has been busy with plenty besides what it puts on TV; it has been involved in establishing the NHS Nightingale hospitals, set up 8,000 contact-centre staff to work from home and lifted home broadband usage caps. "It’s a fairly monumental shift in how an organisation the scale of BT works," Jeavons says.
The topics in the tech tips campaign – also including help for taking a business online and home schooling – were inspired by search data revealing what information people were actually looking for, Jeavons explains, and the media buy was based solely on "the job that we wanted to do".
"We need somewhere that is going to reach a large amount of people on a regular basis, that allows them to know there is going to be information at specific times of the day, and I think ITV are the perfect partner to enable us to do that," he continues. "The length of the ad break was determined by our intent to make this a truly educational piece of content, and you can’t do that in 30 or 60 seconds, because it’s not a genuine educational format."
A focus on digital education has also in the past year seen BT break the world record for the biggest indoor drone light display, recruiting school students to program the drones and launch a site that teaches coding through the medium of cake making. In October, the brand took over Piccadilly Lights, allowing children to use an app developed by Publicis.Poke to code their own avatars, which were then shown on the out-of-home site.
"There was a digital outdoor poster that was going to go up and our creative director was like: are we really making the most of this site?" Djaba recalls. "It was half-term week, you’ve got a lot of parents and kids off – can we do something that’s more active around this?"
The new campaign was motivated by the need to make BT useful to people, Djaba says. A lot of advertisers have used the current circumstances "as a context by which they will use comms to tell people about their purpose", he argues. Instead, BT is aiming to create comms that actually have a purpose themselves – in this case, giving people the skills they need to stay in touch properly.
The campaign has received a surprisingly momentous seal of approval, Djaba says: it is the first time his mum, a Ghanaian immigrant in her late seventies, has ever phoned him to say she’s proud of something he has done at work. It shows why this work is important, Djaba adds: "If you are a brand offering genuine value and you do your bit right now – people are going to remember it."