Super Surgeons: A Chance at Life and the power of branded content

Macmillan Cancer Support and Wonderhood Studios share the importance of authentic storytelling and long-form content

Georgie Moreton

Deputy Editor, BITE Creativebrief


“The beauty of it is that what you come out with is something completely authentic and it’s not advertising.” With season two of Super Surgeons: A Chance at Life currently underway, Anthony Newman, Brand and Marketing Director at Macmillan Cancer Support, is describing the unique way in which branded content is able to tell a deeper, more honest story to connect with audiences.

Super Surgeons: A Chance at Life, created by Macmillan Cancer Support and Wonderhood Studios, gives audiences exclusive access to The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, one of the world’s leading cancer hospitals. It gives audiences the opportunity to follow patients and their clinical teams along their cancer journeys, giving exclusive insights into the discussions and decisions involved in preparing for and performing ambitious, world-leading and life-changing surgeries. The series tells the real-life stories of cancer.

Yet while the series has allowed Macmillan to give audiences a unique insight into its organisation, Samantha Brown, Head of Account Management at Wonderhood Studios, stresses that creating good advertiser-funded content is no walk in the park. “You don’t get confirmation of your live date until two weeks before.” she explains, adding: “You have to be ready as soon as you deliver and you have to work closely with the media agency to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

But having already worked on Stand Up To Cancer while working at Cancer Research UK and on branded content for Merlin Entertainment, Newman knows the power of the medium and the importance of good storytelling to build a brand.

There has been fatigue in the charity sector for an awful long time around how we keep talking about the problem.

Anthony Newman, Brand and Marketing Director at Macmillan Cancer Support

The power of storytelling

“It's not how I would spend the first x amount of pounds, but when you have a substantial budget you can get past the point where traditional advertising is delivering ROI,” explains Newman.

Ant continues: “What we have the opportunity to do is tell a much deeper story to a really interested audience. Rather than being interrupted by a TV ad, you’re actually getting people to come to you for the content so they are really interested in the subject matter.”

Rather than driving sales or raising awareness, the series acts as an opportunity to tell a deeper brand story, showcasing the attitudes and beliefs of the organisation. Yet to do this, there is an element of relinquishing control over the narrative and letting the brand and its work speak for itself through storytelling.

“It started with a very broad brief and some workshops before Wonderhood came up with ten propositions to sell into different channels. This is the one that got the bite from Channel 4 and then it became a four-way partnership between Wonderhood, Macmillan, Channel 4 and The Royal Marsden,” explains Newman.

Existing relationships with commissioners allowed Brown and her team to help shape the right content for the various platforms, working together from the off to create the most audience-relevant content. While a broadcaster like ITV might be more interested in celebrity-led content, somewhere such as Netflix may be more interested in drama. For Super Surgeons, Channel 4 made the perfect partner as they are so focused on access and inclusion.

While for Macmillan long-form content allowed to bring to life the stories of the people the organisation helps daily, branded content might not be for all brands.“Branded content doesn't have to be a purpose-led space but you do need a story to tell,” says Newman. For the likes of FMCG brands, the channel isn’t a complete no-go, but both Newman and Brown stress the importance of having a story to tell rather than a product to sell.

“It's really good to get a business challenge, for Macmillan that was about showing the breadth of services,” adds Brown.

Building connections through authenticity

Super Surgeons: A Chance at Life is now in its second season. Its enduring success can be in part attributed to the deep connection it builds with audiences through the stories it tells.

“In the new series there's only two contributors per episode so you really get to know them because you’re with them for an hour on an intimate, personal journey,” says Brown. “We juxtapose that with the support line calls which shows the national scale that cancer has and how it impacts everyone.”

The medium has an authenticity that the likes of traditional short form television advertising simply cannot compete with. “We don’t have editorial control; we are following real people and real stories. Nothing is made up.” says Brown. “It plays out by itself, we can’t pull the strings as we do on other comms.”

She continues: “The team goes on that journey. A few of the contributors have sadly passed away and many of the team have gone to their funerals. You really become a part of their lives in a difficult time.”

This patient is not just a patient, they are a person. It's not just about saving their life it’s about saving their way of life.

Anthony Newman, Brand and Marketing Director at Macmillan Cancer Support

It is a depth of story that is unmatched in other forms of brand communications. For Macmillian, the series can paint a more in-depth series on the types of cancer and surgeries people go through to educate audiences. 

“Some of the surgery isn't about saving their life,” explains Newman. They continue: “We had a photographer where the job was to save the use of his hand, not his life. And a mum who had throat cancer and it was about saving her voice so she could still have the same relationship with her young child.”

The series allows Macmillan to show rather than tell how the organisation goes the extra mile to support cancer patients. “This patient is not just a patient, they are a person. It's not just about saving their life it’s about saving their way of life,” explains Newman.

Opening doors to new audiences

“One of the challenges Macmillan has is that it overall has more appeal to white middle-class people than it does to other communities we are interested in reaching,” says Newman. Branded content is a great way to open up the brand to different audiences and align it further with the NHS through the partnership with The Royal Marsden, an organisation that audiences have a strong connection to.

In measurable terms, the team did the research to ensure that the opportunity ‘stacked up against traditional advertising in terms of reach and relevance.’ While with branded content there is an element of risk as to whether people will watch, by creating compelling, relevant content Super Surgeons exceeded the audience numbers Channel 4 usually expect from the 10pm slot. A feat impressive for a normal show, let alone hard-hitting branded content.

Emotion, fatigue and culture wars

“There has been fatigue in the charity sector for an awful long time around how we keep talking about the problem,” says Newman. Pointing to the example of Live Aid as an event that created a lot of awareness and sympathy. He warns that if the sector continues to push the same narratives, people risk feeling things aren’t getting any better and are left feeling helpless and fatigued. Super Surgeons offers a more positive perspective and shows the powerful impact that charity can have.

“We are not making attempts to link to a direct fundraising ask, it's brand work. What we are doing is giving people faith that there is progress and Macmillan is part of that,” they add.

The series also gave Macmillan the opportunity to create meaningful conversation and contribute to building a more positive picture of the NHS. A service which is so often placed at the centre of political conversation and polorisation.

“There is a culture war going on about state-funded health care,” says Newman. “If you, like I do, get a bit too drawn into conversations on social media about the positives and negatives of free at the point of access health care, you can easily get to a point where it might be presented that this type of health care is doing such a terrible job that it needs to go.”

Continuing: “What we are showing in this docuseries is that what The Royal Marsden do is the very best in the whole world and the people who are getting that treatment are getting it for free at the point of access.”

Now, with season two underway, the team are hoping to continue the conversations the first season started building on. Building ‘talkability’ and furthering its impact in culture via social media remains top of the agenda. Testament to the success of season one, the new season sits in the sought-after 9pm slot. Through authenticity, compelling stories and offering audiences a unique insight, Super Surgeons brings to life the power of authentic advertiser-funded content.

You can watch Super Surgeons on
Tuesdays at 9pm on Channel 4 or online on demand.

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