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By Rebecca Stewart, Trends Editor

May 13, 2020 | 8 min read

As health workers risk their lives on the front line treating Covid-19 patients, the UK’s passion for its National Health Service (NHS) has never run deeper. Here, The Drum reflects on the making of MullenLowe Group’s ‘We Are Nurses’ 2019 campaign for NHS England, which recently scooped the coveted Grand Prix at The Drum Marketing Awards 2020.

The NHS is the “closest thing the English people have to a religion”. So sneered Nigel Lawson, who served as UK chancellor under prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the mid-80s. Fast forward more than 30 years and the sense of national passion for the jewel in the crown of the UK’s welfare state has only deepened in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in modern history.

Crayon-scrawled rainbows have popped up in windows of homes across the UK in tribute to the NHS staff putting their own health on the line to care for others.

Throughout Thursday evenings in lockdown, streets up and down the country have reached a clamorous crescendo as clapping, pots and pans and other DIY instruments have been rung out in appreciation of the NHS and other keyworkers as part of the ‘Clap for Our Carers’ campaign.

Initiatives supporting NHS charities (including a controversial Virgin Giving ‘Run for Heroes’ 5K challenge) have also sprung up. After being treated for a broken hip and skin cancer, 100-year-old World War Two veteran Captain Tom Moore quickly became the face of resilience in a crisis, completing a 2.5km walk around his garden and raising £30m for NHS Charities Together in the process.

Pre-coronavirus, the NHS was crowned as the UK public’s ‘most relevant brand’ ahead of Apple and Netflix, which should give readers outside Great Britain some insight into its place in society.

‘We Are the NHS’

The agency charged with promoting (and right now, protecting) the NHS is MullenLowe Group UK, which has been pushing the ‘Stay At Home’ and ‘Wash Your Hands’ messaging on its behalf since the start of lockdown in March.

Last year, though, it was charged with a much simpler brief: to help recruit the kind of staff the nation is now collectively celebrating.

The result was ‘We Are the NHS’, a rousing call to arms that coincided with the 70th anniversary of the healthcare provider. The campaign tagline was written to encapsulate the national pride so many in Britain feel about the organisation.

Lovisa Silburn, the creative director behind the work, says the key theme emerged because the creative team kept coming back to Lawson's quote.

"Our job was to make sure the NHS has enough staff to keep it going for the next 70 years."

As a result, her team created several ads under the strapline to recruit for all areas of the workforce, the third of which was ‘We Are the NHS. We Are Nurses’.

The film at the heart of the ad (above), which was recently awarded the Grand Prix at The Drum Marketing Awards, shines a spotlight on real people and real moments from all walks of nursing life, including mental health nurses, learning disability nurses, district nurses and hospital-based nurses.

Shot on location in working hospitals in Margate and Ashford, the film even includes footage of a live birth – a first for a TV commercial – and was produced to show the huge range of rewarding opportunities a career in nursing can offer.

we are the nhs

Silburn says one of the biggest challenges the team faced after pitching for the business was to make a campaign that was broad enough to appeal to people from all walks of life and educational backgrounds.

It also wasn’t just about recruiting fresh faces: “We had to appeal to existing staff and retain them by instilling a sense of pride in what they do, but we also had to recruit new people into nursing.

“Our audience could have been a student or a kid aged 15 to 17 who was considering a career in nursing. So, the ad had to be inspirational enough for the latter group to say ‘you know what, I never thought of nursing, but it actually looks quite interesting’. But equally, it also had to speak to people in their 40s who were unhappy in their current job and perhaps looking for something with more purpose.”

Despite having achieved great success with its 2018 iteration of the campaign, the economic uncertainty from Brexit in early 2019 led to a cut in budget from the Treasury – the dire need for a pipeline of nurses into the NHS notwithstanding.

This meant that Mullen Lowe Group had to work with MullenLowe Mediahub and Manning Gottlieb OMD on a media plan that would attract the attention of both students and career-switchers, and came in on budget.

The agency had to outsmart, not outspend. As a result, it drew up a plan using data and insight acquired from a comprehensive quantitative and qualitative research study that informed all strategy and communication.

‘We Are The NHS. We Are Nurses’ ran throughout September and October 2019 across TV, radio, social and out-of-home. A deal was brokered with parenting forum Mumsnet to target ex-NHS staff. Later in the year, a poster campaign was aimed at would-be undergraduate students before university and college admissions closed at the turn of 2020.

MullenLowe Open handled CRM and MullenLowe Profero was responsible for the website. The former, Silburn asserts, was integral to the campaign’s success.

“We did an enormous amount of CRM and sent out emails targeting all these groups. These were really successful in driving people to the recruitment website and getting them to actively apply for nursing courses.

“We also did a lot of social – we made hundreds of films, showing the different career paths nursing can lead people down, whether that’s occupational therapy or mental health services."

Changing perceptions of nursing

Another obstacle facing the agency was the idea that nurses only worked in triage or hospital environments.

“We had to create something that changed people’s perception of nursing. Even though nursing requires a certain amount of compassion or care, you also need the academic skills to do it. It’s a three-year degree and it’s very technical.

“People hadn’t quite looked at it in that way before, so that was really important.”

To get the message across, the creative shop worked extremely closely with the client, which was “very collaborative” and onboard at every stage of the processes.

The decision to use real nurses was quickly agreed on and the organisation tapped into its range of “ambassador staff” to find the perfect cast for the ad.

Silburn says new directors are always “a bit apprehensive” about working with a group of ordinary people instead of actors, but this time around director Toby Dye was “blown away” by the diversity of the cast in front of him.

we are nurses, we are the nhs

“The beauty of these ads is that we didn’t have to ask the nurses to act, we just asked them to do their job. Because of that, performance was never an issue because they were just doing what they were trained to do.

“The strength of the end result was that there was so much variety and it shows how much of nursing as a job goes on outside of the hospital and in the community. It’s so important that people see that.”

Silburn declines to share specific results, according to Mullen Lowe Group the campaign not only surpassed targets but beat all metrics year-on-year despite the decrease in media budget from the Treasury.

“The campaign is working. It’s a marathon because before you can get someone to consider nursing you’ve got a period of decision-making, then they have a three-year course to undertake, then they’re on the ward.

“It’s a very long journey, and if we don’t get people in at that stage then there won’t be anyone to look after us in the future.”

In a world where nursing is one of the most crucial professions in the fight against coronavirus, the success of ‘We Are The NHS. We Are Nurses’ surely deserves its own round of applause.

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