How the 'We are the NHS' ad tapped into World Cup pride
A view from Jo Arden

How the 'We are the NHS' ad tapped into World Cup pride

Jo Arden, chief strategy officer at MullenLowe, explains why the group built a campaign to complement the existing conversation around the challenges facing the NHS.

Everyone has a point of view on the NHS. As one of the defining features of the UK, any new representation of it sparks debate. Being the guardian of that brand, even in a small way, is a job that none of us would take lightly. Which is why it’s important to address some of the challenges Jeremy Lee raises about the current "We are the NHS" campaign in his piece Our NHS needs a new big idea (10 August, Campaign).

Importantly, "We are the NHS" is not an ad to drive demand for service, nor to proudly pat those on the back that work within in. It is a campaign to generate and harvest interest in NHS careers.

Recruitment and retention of key roles in the NHS is business critical, this first phase specifically aimed at boosting recruitment by 22,000 nurses a year. And therein lies another of the big challenges: the NHS is a complex and expansive network of services. To reduce it down to "keeping people alive" is to obscure the breadth of value that the 1.5 million people who work in it bring, and would take a myopic view of the motivations for those looking for a career in health.

In developing the strategy for the campaign, we looked at the impact that programming like 24 hours in A&E and One Born Every Minute had on people’s perceptions of the NHS and, vitally, their interest in joining it.

Our recommendation was to build a campaign that complemented the existing conversation. That would demand urgency to act without catastrophising; that would reflect the professionalism and variety of the day to day job, not replicate the compelling crises that make good drama.

Rather than eschewing the populist programming, we aimed at harvesting the demand it helps to generate. On that basis, we, along with our PR partner, Freuds, didn’t recommend a content approach, rather a well-rounded and responsible marketing approach that responded to the environment in which it would be experienced.

Jeremy asks whether this is "big enough to tug at something that lies deep within us". People will need to judge that for themselves, though the response data so far suggests it is.

In working with real nurses and health professionals for the filming, we were able to show the job as it is, no better, no worse – a representation that those who work within the NHS will recognise and be proud of, and those who have what it takes might look at and see their future.

It’s interesting to note too, the context in which this campaign landed. There was no accident of timing as the campaign and the World Cup collided. While we couldn’t have predicted how well Gareth Southgate’s team would do, we did know that for a topic that demands we tap into national pride, there is no better moment than when people are literally wearing the flag.

We don’t make advertising in a vacuum. We do it by understanding the people with whom we want to engage, which means considering carefully what else is going on in their world at that time. For my money, Maxine Peake talking about the reality of working in "our NHS" while our 24 Hours in A&E loving audience stand shoulder to shoulder, supporting England is just what the doctor ordered.

Jo Arden is the chief strategy officer at MullenLowe Group.

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