VMLY&R shows the power of purpose with Dogs without Borders

The groundbreaking campaign supports abandoned dogs to become medical detection dogs

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


How do you solve a problem like detecting cancer in remote areas of the globe? Far from a problem that is too big to solve, a new campaign from VMLY&R not only manages to rise to this challenge, it expands its solution to support stray dogs. 

At a time when the ‘expander’ mindset is gaining column inches in the business press, the groundbreaking ‘Dogs without Borders’ campaign is a compelling example of the expansive power of creativity. By turning abandoned dogs into medical detection dogs, the campaign manages to wrap its arms around two great challenges; the growing packs of abandoned dogs, and helping people to access potentially life-saving medical diagnostics. 

By training dogs to diagnose patients that doctors cannot reach, the campaign helps to bridge the harsh reality for almost half of the world’s population which currently has limited access to diagnostics. According to The Lancet Commission on Diagnostics, almost half of the world’s population lack access to basic diagnostics for many common diseases. 

Dogs Without Borders is a unique project that delivers a scalable solution to two long standing issues – abandoned dogs left to die and remote communities without basic diagnostics.

Dr. Carla Ismael, CEO of KDog

The power of expansive creativity

Tackling this lack of accessibility sits at the heart of VMLY&R Health’s campaign for KDog, the canine medical detection unit founded by the Curie Institute in Paris. The project trains rescue dogs to detect cancer and other diseases. With training dogs can smell breast cancer and other types of cancer; even before tumours are formed. 

In bone-shaped kits odour collection kits contain materials and simple visual instructions which allow patients to collect samples themselves. These kits were distributed to people living in hard-to-reach locations such as the Amazon and the Sahara Desert. After collection, local medical detection dogs smell the samples and if disease is detected, the patient is notified and sent for further analysis and treatment.   

Dr. Carla Ismael, KDog CEO, explained: “Dogs Without Borders is a unique project that delivers a scalable solution to two long standing issues – abandoned dogs left to die and remote communities without basic diagnostics. It gives people living in isolated areas access to diagnostic healthcare for the first time.”

Claire Gillis, CEO VMLY&R Health, added: “This project was created to service the unmet medical needs of many patients who can’t access regular check-ups or diagnostics. People living in remote areas only make the journey to see a doctor when they experience symptoms. By the time they get diagnosed, it’s often too late.”

She continues: “The increasing problem of stray dogs in many of these regions and the clinically proven success of medical detection dogs gave us the idea – save dogs’ lives so they can save the lives of people living in remote areas. It’s a privilege to launch such a sustainable, symbiotic, and scalable solution that can change health outcomes for so many.”    

Bringing big ideas to life  

So how did such an ambitious campaign come to life? Natxo Díaz, Global Head of Health Craft at VMLY&R Health believes the work reflects a step change in creativity when it comes to advertising in the health sphere. 

In the wake of a pandemic which put health under the microscope across the globe, it is perhaps not surprising that health has become, as Díaz explains, a place for ‘constant creativity’.

Díaz, who was previously CCO for VMLY&R Health Spain, was appointed to the newly formed role of Global Head of Health craft this month; a reflection of the growing focus on craft in the category. For in Díaz’s words ‘craft is the glue that connects messages to our minds in a deeper, more meaningful way.”

VMLY&R Health’s CEO said that this year in pharma, craft is taking centre stage. She explained: “We’re seeing a fall in traditional advertising and a focus on health ‘experiences’, and with it, a surge of beautifully crafted work that reaches out to touch the lives of people, patients, and health care professionals. 

Because everyone was so focused on the outcome, no challenge was insurmountable.

Natxo Díaz, Global Head of Health Craft at VMLY&R Health

Purpose as a creative commitment

The healthcare sector’s hidden creative secret has long been the care behind the work. Often the people behind the lens have been personally impacted by the illnesses and diseases their campaigns seek to tackle. In the wake of the Covid crisis, where people were forced to consider their health and that of their loved ones, health and wellness has risen up the creative agenda. 

“There has always been such a strong commitment and purpose for people working in healthcare advertising. The issues surrounding access to healthcare are extremely important to us,” explains Díaz. 

It was this passion which saw the idea for a Dogs Without Borders campaign expand into a global effort. At the time of the project’s conception Díaz was CCO for Spain and a meeting with the global team in New York, who had also been working on an idea of using abandoned dogs to help with healthcare access, the cross country collaboration turned a spark of an idea into an ambitious reality. 

He explains: “It is amazing when you really focus on doing things that have an impact, regardless of who owns the idea, you can genuinely make a difference.” Describing how the process was not held back by ego, he notes that because everyone was so focused on the outcome no challenge was insurmountable. “It isn't about winning awards, it really is about impact,” he added.

For Díaz the issue of healthcare accessibility was heightened by his experience of backpacking. While at this stage in his life he had no connection to healthcare advertising, questions as to how people access healthcare, or give birth in remote areas came to the fore. Notably, the Brazilian creative team who sparked a similar idea in New York also had lived experiences of being in remote and difficult-to-access areas. 

“Access to healthcare is such a big challenge and one that has been cemented in my mind for some time. The truth is we are lucky to be where we are, to be able to access healthcare as that has such a huge impact on your chances of surviving cancer. This is why It means so much to me we were able to support this initiative,” he adds.

Compassion and creativity 

The project was not without its nuances and hurdles. Beginning with identifying Breast Cancer the team realised that actually getting women to share samples in the first place would be very complex and nuanced. “It is not the same asking a woman in Brazil, or asking a woman in Morocco. We needed to speak to all the communities, to gain their trust and their support in order to go and save lives in their community,” explained Díaz. 

Such a new way of diagnostics demanded that time and effort was invested in communicating the benefits. KDog really understood local cultures and the long-term investment means the project now has a life of its own.

It became about the solution not just the idea

Natxo Díaz, Global Head of Health Craft at VMLY&R Health

Overcoming overwhelm

“Most moments we have been overwhelmed in this project,” explains Díaz, “When you have the simplicity of an idea it's easy not to think about the complexity. Even when you don’t have all the answers these projects can be slower than you expect, particularly when you want that global scale.”

Patience and perseverance paid off and the project began to take on a life of its own after hitting the milestone on the 1st January this year of 1,000 people being diagnosed. “The more people you discover, the more ambitious you become. It becomes about the solution, not the idea.”

He continues: “Who are we to be overwhelmed when there are lives that can be saved? When you have something so big, that is how you can make a difference.”

The success of the campaign is at its heart a story of the success of cross-country collaboration. Rather than the ambition shrinking, or the idea getting lost in matrix structures and lengthy sign-off processes the campaign ‘escalated’ across the network. 

“There was huge support from offices in Brazil and New York. It escalated across the network and all the creative leads believed that it would work. It went way beyond health. It was the entire network,” explains Díaz. 

Building creative momentum

While there has been rumblings that ‘the work isn’t as good’ in the wake of the pandemic for the healthcare sector the pandemic has placed a genuine focus on health.

“Everyone has their eye on their health,” explains Díaz, he continues: “We had been living for so long with the uncertainty of what is going to happen with our health. Now all the brands understand that people look after their health more.”

Not only does this mean his inbox is flooded with messages from creatives who want to make the leap to healthcare, but it means brands are waking up to the value of consumer health more broadly. Wellness washing is long past its sell-by date.

For Díaz not only is the work getting better, but as Dogs Without Borders proves, it can have a meaningful purpose. He believes that working in healthcare is a privilege and it is clear that he does not hold that responsibility lightly.

“It is all about creative momentum, about life-changing ideas and using that great momentum or impact,” he explains. Work such as Dogs Without Borders underlines the importance of impact in healthcare advertising.

“At the end of the day, we can all leave our small mark on the world, a grain of sand in the desert. That is how I feel about this project. It is not about an individual agency, it is all about the outcome.”

A creative outcome whose ripple effects are nothing short of life-changing. 

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