Anatomy of an Ad: Behind the scenes of Save the Children’s ‘second a day’ Syria ad

A 90-second video highlighting the plight of Syrian children, launched online in March, used a series of clips to document one year in the life of a young girl whose comfortable existence is shattered by war. The Drum speaks to the creative agency behind the video, London company Don’t Panic, to discover the thinking behind it.

Save the Children wanted to cut through the “war fatigue” around Syria when it approached London creative agency Don’t Panic with a brief to create empathy, creative director Richard Beer tells The Drum. “At the time there was a lot of stuff in the headlines about the chemical weapons being used, and who was on what side, and Save the Children wanted to refocus the attention on the forgotten victims of the conflict – all these children.”The brief for the agency was therefore to create empathy and make a British audience care about Syrian children. But in a landscape cluttered with charity advertising desperately trying to tap into our emotional side, how could the campaign cut through the cynicism and fatigue? Excited about the very open brief from the start, Don’t Panic originally took 17 ideas to the first pitch, says Beer. “It was probably a little too many,” he laughs, “but we were very enthusiastic about what we were doing.” After the initial bout of optimism, the agency managed to whittle it down to three or four, with Beer admitting he lavished more attention on the idea eventually used – the idea of exploring the impact of war through the lens of a child over the course of a year. Beer was drawn to the ‘second a day’ format used by Sam Cornwell, a photographer who filmed his baby son from birth to the age of one. The format of the Save the Children video is a combination of the second a day format with the perspective of the photo a day format, which tells the story not just of that individual, but also of the story of what’s happening around them. Beer admits that he “sort of fell in love with the concept” as soon as it entered his head. It had originally begun with the idea of telling the story of a young Syrian girl over the course of a year, starting on one birthday and finishing on the next, the situation gradually worsening throughout and her comfortable existence shattered by the end.

However, the agency quickly realised that the budget for the video simply wouldn’t allow for a Syrian narrative, and so the idea graduated into setting the story in Britain, highlighting the devastating impact civil war would have on a little girl living in London. The film then ends with the words ‘Just because it isn’t happening here, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening’ – giving the film a whole new edge. Beer explains that the restrictive budget in fact then simply allowed the agency to be more creative.“I thought, ‘well actually, why don’t we do it in England with an English girl?’ I think that’s one of the occasions where something that restricts what you want to do actually ends up making it more creative, because you have to find a way around the limitations you have.”After the agency decided on the direction for the video, Beer sat down with Joe Wade, managing director at Don’t Panic and one of the creators of The Revolution Will Be Televised, and director Martin Stirling of production company Unit9, to create a shot list for the filming, which would take place over the course of just two days at various locations in Stoke Newington and East London. It was Wade’s idea to create a number of echoes in the film, from the little girl’s mother combing her hair at the start, to picking nits out of her hair later, creating correlations between the two versions of her life. The dialogue for the news items heard in the film, written by the agency, was brought to life when Don’t Panic was put in touch with Natasha Kaplinsky, one of the charity’s patrons, who was keen to lend her voice to it. Beer believes the addition of Kaplinsky added a “professional authenticity” to the film. Authenticity was important to the campaign, as Save the Children wanted the film to accurately reflect life in Syria since the start of the war. Therefore the client and the agency worked together to ensure everything depicted was factually accurate and based on real-life examples, which made for “pretty tragic reading”, says Beer. “Everything that happened in that movie had happened to someone in a case study. Children who have lost their parents or ended up in a refugee camp and lost everything. Having to lick dew from tree leaves to survive.”The charity also wanted the film to be objective and so took out anything that could be seen as specifying “one side versus another”, according to Beer. Despite a “really low” shooting budget, Beer says he was “awed” by the amount of effort put in by Unit9 to shoot 90 scenes in just two days. “The amount of effort that went into making something that had just been in my head a short while before into a real thing was … it awed me, frankly.” The combined effort manifested itself in costume changes, make-up, props and a “huge amount of effort” constructing every scene to tell the story effectively, according to Beer. As well as working with production company Unit9, with whom Don’t Panic already had a “good working relationship”, Smoke & Mirrors was brought in to work on the colour and grading – a deliberate process resulting in rich, vibrant colour at the beginning of the film, which has been washed out by the end. Factory also came on board to create the sound effects of gunfire and bombs used in the ad. According to Beer, the finished ad would not have looked as polished without the help of these two companies, who went above and beyond due to the nature of the project. “They decided to pitch in way more than they would have done in a normal commercial project,” he says. While the collaborative approach and hard work on all sides during the production process contributed to the success of the ambitious project, Beer says Save the Children deserves credit simply for the trust it placed in the agency to deliver. “I think one of the most valuable things Save the Children did was to trust us. And once we’d nailed the script down they let us just get on with it.“We had a good relationship with them and we were getting on really well but we hadn’t done stuff with them before. That, as much as anything, as much as all the efforts from the creative side, having a client who believes in you and trusts your judgement that it’s going to work – it was refreshing because it’s rare that you get someone letting you spread your creative wings. They definitely deserve credit for that.”CreditsAgency: Don't Panic LondonCreative director and script writer: Richard BeerScript writer: Joe WadeAccount manager: Sam AdamsProject manager: Christina ChanVideo production: Unit9 FilmsDirector: Martin StirlingProducer: Geoff MorganProducer: Irene LoboExecutive producer: Elliott TaggExecutive producer: Michelle CraigDirector of photography: Jacob ProudArt director: Charlotte Cooke1st AD: Erica GianesiniCostume designer: Joseph CroneMakeup artist: Katie CowardGrade: Smoke & MirrorsSound design/mix: FactoryTalentLittle girl: Lily-Rose AslandogduMother: Michelle ArcherFather: Timothy BondLittle boy: Kaizer Akhtar

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