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.