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Cancer Research UK’s outgoing marketing director on the third sector’s new thirst for innovation: ‘It’s the most challenging – but exciting – time for charities’


By Katie Deighton | Senior Reporter

April 27, 2017 | 7 min read

Innovation underpinned Anthony Newman’s 17-year tenure at Cancer Research UK, which comes to an end this month. Now, it’s a life raft for third sector brands as the industry turns the corner to prize engagement above all other things.

Cancer Research

Newman developed Cancer Is Happening Right Now

Kids Company’s closure and the suicide of Olive Cooke punctuated a difficult few years for the charity sector. Now with the government slowly pulling funding from under the floor, it’s clear that something’s got to give in the way charities market their brands.

“In the last couple of years there’s been huge shakes in public confidence,” said Newman. “The reliance on such few income streams and direct marketing led charities down the route of being less supporter-centric in what they were doing and perhaps more and more aggressive. In the end that didn’t work out well.

“It’s a real turning point for the sector right now. You really hear lots of talk about engagement-first and this is going to be an absolutely massive challenge for the sector. And if they don’t get it right, it’s going to be mean less money for less good causes. There’s really interesting and challenging times ahead for the sector, but perhaps the most exciting times creatively.”

It could also mean exciting times digitally, in the sense that the industry might finally learn to embrace the power online marketing. The blame for this previous resistance should not be placed on out-of-touch marketers, but perhaps on an sector-wide befuddlement on how to turn clicks into donations.

“It’s actually incredibly difficult to get [digital] to work,” explained Newman. “In charity, nobody has to give you any money, so the persuasion you need to get people over the line is a harder thing to do. A great way of doing that is to have a conversation and to explain to people the amazing stuff that you’ll do with their money. That’s hard to do in the digital space.”

Having said that, in the last few months Newman believes his brand has managed to get programmatic to work effectively.

“That’s now delivering some results [that are] better than any other channel, partly because the costs are low and because the ability to target is so good, and partly because it’s backed by a big above the line campaign.”

cancer research statues

There’s no doubting Cancer Research UK’s position as an innovative company; the scientific experimentation at its core spreads to the rest of the business with marketing being no exception. Its left-of-field projects include art trails, smart benches and virtual reality gardens, but its above-the-line campaigns have not een immune to innovation either.

“When I took on Race For Life in 2011 the business was going to disinvest from it,” recalled Newman. “It looked like it was a dying product and it was time to get rid of it. But I managed to persuade the board and directors and trustees to carry on investing in it for another year and I basically turned it around to growth.”

The turnaround was helped by the Cancer We’re Coming To Get You campaign from Mother, which managed to turn the product from a pink fun run into a battle cry. It was a bold move: copy included 'Up Yours Cancer' and a picture of an x-ray with two fingers up even led to complaints to the ASA (they weren’t upheld).

“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily difficult to persuade my bosses to be innovative because they’re commercial people, they understand innovation,” Newman said. “It is difficult sometimes to persuade them to take risks, which is something a bit different. It was sometimes a fight internally. There was a lot of compromise along the way but overall it’s a really important marketing and leadership skill to persuade, and to do some of that with evidence and some of that with passion.”

Newman’s swan song is Cancer Is Happening Right Now, an ambitious, multi-channel campaign with a series of raw documentary films at its heart. Launched by Anomaly at the end of 2015, the marketer believes it’s the one campaign that broke all the rules – not just of charity campaigning, but of advertising as a whole.

“We created masses of content rather than two or three killer 30-second spots,” he said. “We really single mindedly went for emotion. The campaign is real. There’s no scripts, there’s no actors, there’s no sets, it’s all real footage.”

Cancer Research teamed up with The Garden Productions, primarily known for producing 24 Hours In A&E, to create a range of films portraying the stark realities of cancer and medical research (“Normally production companies are selling to you, but we had to persuade them to do it,” recalled Newman).

The campaign culminated in a TV ad in which the charity showed an operation happening live – arguably the biggest risk anyone in advertising has ever taken.

“When you’re dealing with something like research, the temptation is to always talk about something amazing that’s going to happen at some point in the future; what people want from you is to cure cancer. The advertising we’ve done in the past has been about that promise,” said Newman.

“What I did in this campaign is bring it down to what we’re doing right now. That was a massive breakthrough and that brought the brand much closer to the consumer. I’ve always said … if we don’t get any complaints it’s probably a bad campaign. But this campaign proved me wrong. I think the reason for that is because it’s real. So what is there to complain about? When you just put a cancer patient in front of the camera, how can you say what they say is wrong?”

The campaign was a success, hitting Cancer Research’s highest-ever social reach and donations targets. An unprecedented six pieces of collateral were awarded a coveted five-star rating on Brainjuicer’s Feel More 50 emotional index. So why would Newman leave when it’s all going so well?

“I’ve talked about this as an ad campaign … it’s not, it’s a communications platform,” he said. “My ambition for this was it would be something that would stretch into every part of the organization, and be used by every part of the organisation. So moving forward, the job now is to integrate that across everything, which isn’t as an exciting job as creating it in the first place.

“We’ve never had anything before that you could do that with. This is now the communications platform the company is committed to using for the next couple of years. But creating it has been one of the pinnacles of my career.”

Anthony Newman is a judge for The Drum Marketing Awards 2017.

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