Breaking the coronavirus communications conundrum

Tom Knox, Chairman of MullenLowe London, on the greatest marketing challenge of his career.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


In the first week of March, the Cheltenham Festival began. Four days of horseracing went ahead, attracting daily crowds of over 60,000 people. Just two weeks later lockdown was introduced, on March 23rd. For seven weeks people across the country were confined to their homes, with schools and non-essential businesses hitting pause on face-to-face interactions. Hindsight has always been a beautiful thing in marketing yet there are few more powerful reminders of just how quickly things changed in the midst of the coronavirus crisis than those few weeks in March.

Unprecedented may well be one of the most overused words of 2020, but it is nonetheless apt. Despite the comparisons made with World War Two, the truth is from a marketing and behavioural science perspective, there is no playbook for a global pandemic. For Tom Knox, Chairman of MullenLowe London, who has helmed much of the government’s coronavirus advertising, as well as the agency, the logistical challenge of responding in real time to a fast changing situation has genuinely created unprecedented changes. This has been across everything from creative processes to the management and the wellbeing of the people who make up those creative teams. 

Although Knox is speaking on a now obligatory Zoom call, it is not as if he has been working remotely, as he is still ensconced in the Cabinet Office, where the flurry of activity and pace of communications shows no sign of slowing. The tension between the hope that accompanies the news of a vaccine coming, combined with fears of a third wave triggered by Christmas get-togethers, underlines the fact that we remain painfully far from the finish line. 

Most of what we are doing is around behavioural change and we have kept to the core principles of that, the first being ensuring the messaging is as simple as possible.

Tom Knox

Agility in action

The industry has long talked a good game on agility but the realities of managing government advertising in the midst of a global pandemic underlines what the buzzword really means. “The most challenging thing about this campaign has been the turnaround between briefings and being on air, often less than a week between the two,” explains Knox.

The logistical challenge of this meant that the team set up an integrated communications team based at the Cabinet Office. Encompassing Transport, Education, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence, a core team from MullenLowe is based at the office most days. It’s an approach which has helped with the speed of executions required. Logistically, early campaigns faced the additional challenge of needing to use library footage while navigating the added layer of locating images featuring the right use of PPE. The inexplicable tendency to wear a mask under the nose was perhaps also evident in stock imagery.

Then there is the issue hitting the entire industry hard in the midst of this crisis, that of managing the wellbeing of its most important asset: its people. “Managing the agency is difficult and a lot of people are having a hard time. At the beginning there was adrenaline and that carried us through the first period of lockdown.” Yet, the second lockdown has brought with it more fatigue. “People are knackered,” Knox adds. 

A landmark for behavioural change

It’s perhaps impossible to overestimate just how much of an impact the coronavirus crisis has had on marketing strategies of old. Looking back over the agency’s output over the past nine months Knox emphasises the shifts in tone and messaging, “from explaining the tiering system, to what to say over Christmas to the Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives message,” explains Knox. Then there was the optimism of the summer, difficult to remember in the midst of the dark mornings and darker nights of this long winter. “Eat out to help out was a strong commercial message,” he adds.

“We have really conceived campaigns very holistically. When we are thinking about what the Prime Minister is going to be saying, we are thinking about what the owned media is going to be, what the PR will look like, what the partnerships are,” says Knox. He points to the role of agencies 23red and Freuds as genuine partners in these endeavours. 

In the history of marketing communications, the UK government’s coronavirus crisis campaign unquestionably is a landmark moment for the use of behavioural science in marketing. “Most of what we are doing is around behavioural change and we have kept to the core principles of that, the first being ensuring the messaging is as simple as possible,” Knox explains.

The team have relied on a lunchtime diet of Kantar tracking to provide solid behavioural data as well as answer specific questions. This has allowed them to respond to the real behaviour of people through real-time research.

The core initial message, ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS. Save Lives’ came directly from Number 10, a message driven by a policy imperative having seen the tragic impact of the crisis on Spain and Italy. “From a political imperative the notion of protecting the NHS was a very motivating one. Hindsight is a beautiful thing for everyone, but at the beginning the fact was people weren’t sure to what extent people would comply,” explains Knox.

From a behavioural science perspective the learnings are ‘patchy’. Clearly there were people who were scared of going to hospital when they needed to, while there were other groups in which cramped multi-generational living made it impossible to comply, simply by virtue of their living situation. But the most challenging behavioural change task of all, according to Knox, was self-isolation. 

In adversity I would hope to see more long-term relationships and retention. We have all benefited from seeing each other’s humanity.

Tom Knox

Planning for uncertainty

Learning to live in a world of decreasing certainty has been a challenge for marketers and consumers alike. “It's been quite a challenge from a resource planning perspective,” says Knox. It’s a state of play which means the team needs to be constantly developing for different scenarios. From which vaccine will be approved first to how to explain the tier system, this campaign has relied on the notion of agility as being far more than a buzzword.

Yet, learning to plan for uncertainty is ultimately about managing people. “We have been in a relay; we’ve rotated people in and out of the campaign team. There have been a few core people who have gone the whole way but people do burnout and with lots of late night and weekend work, we have to be aware of people’s energy,” Knox explains. It’s a level of pressure that has been particularly acute for people with caring responsibilities. 

Then of course there is the additional challenge of simply existing in an environment in which everyone is an expert on any given campaign. Feedback in real time on social media that perhaps jars with the gravitas of the message means that at every stage of the process, the teams needed exceptional attention to detail. The ground rules for this campaign were both extensive and rapidly changing. “I have been on occasion astonished by people’s naivety. What a lot of people forget is that we are in the midst of a pandemic. Government communications avoided levity at all times and obviously we need to be very careful with our tone of voice,” Knox says.

The efficiency effect

As an industry we collectively viewed our response to the coronavirus pandemic as a sprint. As we adapt to the collective fatigue of the marathon phase, it is difficult not to admire the depth and the breadth of the work that MullenLowe has put out amidst the most challenging of circumstances. Work which is far from over.

“The public mood has changed extremely rapidly. The imminent availability of a vaccine has had a dramatic impact,” Knox says. Yet he adds that, “we are very keen over the Christmas period that people don’t forget the key social distancing behaviours, or there is a significant risk of a third wave.” With this in mind a new campaign, refreshing the ‘Hands. Face. Space’ message will launch in the run up to the festive season.

Perhaps it is trite to ask if there are collective lessons for the marketing industry from such an unprecedented year. Yet Knox is articulate and clear-eyed on the progress which has been made. “It will be hard to go back to the old normal. The old relay race has been smashed, it's been an eye opener,” he says. From the way in which creative teams have been briefed, to the construction of messaging matrix plans and the efficiency of Google documents, the pandemic has revolutionised the workplace and there will be no going back. 

Knox explains: “I was sceptical initially and thought that ultimately as soon as we can we will return to the office. But this [extended period of remote working] has fundamentally shifted that belief. We have an employee working from a different country. Ultimately employees will demand more flexibility and so as an industry we will be much more tolerant of different ways of working.”

For Knox this period has not only ushered in more agile ways of working, but it has also  seen a steep shift in the use of technology for collaborative working and accelerated some luddite tendencies by necessity. He explains: “Clients and agencies have been brought closer together and physically we have seen inside each other's home.”

For the MullenLowe team at Whitehall that has meant a closer relationship simply by virtue of sharing the same physical space. He continues: “In adversity I would hope to see more long-term relationships and retention. We have certainly seen more close working relationships. We have all benefited from seeing each other’s humanity.”

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