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‘To be continued’: inside the Guardian’s 200th birthday celebrations

To mark 200 years of continuous print, the Guardian devised an anniversary campaign that looked forwards rather than celebrating the past. It sat down with The Drum to give a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the big campaign.

A lot has happened since 1821. The abolition of slavery, two world wars, the Industrial Revolution – not to mention the proliferation of the internet. Through it all, the Guardian has been in print, not just documenting but critiquing the world as it progressed.

“We were the original challenger brand,” insists Sam Jacobs, creative director at The Guardian's in-house team, a partnership with Oliver. “It was born in Manchester, not Fleet Street, from a real need to challenge the status quo, with everything that was going on at the time with the Peterloo Massacre. It was different to the other publications of the time. We still have those similar challenges today, they haven’t gone away.”

200 years for a newspaper is a big deal. The Guardian is older than the New York Times, the Telegraph and the Wall Street Journal. And considering how volatile the media industry has become, survival must be celebrated – especially if it’s trans-centuries.

But the Guardian insists it doesn’t want to mark the milestone with a period of reflection. “We were adamant that we didn’t want it to just be a celebration of the past,” says Kate Davies, marketing director at the Guardian. “We wanted to talk to our future.”

As Jacobs points out, anniversaries can sometimes feel more important to a brand than to the outside world. “There’s a fine line between celebration and revelling,” he says, which got them to the campaign tagline: ‘A Work in Progress since 1821.’

“As a news organization, we should be concerned with what’s happening now and where we’re going,” Jacobs contends. “Learning from the past is important, as it allows us to understand and move forward, but where we’re going next and the challenges ahead are so important. So we wanted to find a position that talked to that.”

Created in-house through a collaboration with Oliver agency, the campaign is devised to highlight the Guardian’s unique role and voice in the world, with a focus on its independent ownership, reputation for holding the powerful to account and commitment to hopeful ideas and imaginative solutions throughout its 200-year history.

Celebrating the evolution of the Guardian’s typography and its longstanding challenger voice, the campaign uses clever copywriting that allows the reader to sample its product.

“When you’re a news organisation that deals with words, words are so important. Every single line we have has so much weight – they’re scrutinized so heavily,” says Jacobs, pointing to the old AMV BBDO days of the Economist as an example of that. “You listen to the stories – how they would write 1000s of lines and just the best would be pinned to the wall. You totally understand why this had to happen.”

He explains that everyone who works at or reads the Guardian has their own perspective as to what it represents and what makes something very ‘Guardian’. “And there’s positive and negative baggage that comes with that,” he says. “You have to try hard to get the words right, so we tried to be very critical of what we wrote, self-examining every line. We wrote hundreds if not thousands of lines – well, that’s what it feels like.”

While the ‘Work in Progress’ campaign will run across multiple touchpoints, including the Guardian’s digital platforms and apps, with paid activity across its social media channels, its the out-of-home (OOH) work that feels particularly ‘Guardian’ as it is a firm believer in the epic street takeover.

Last year, the Guardian coated Berlin in 2,000 flyposters as part of an experiential stunt that begged passers-by to break the emergency glass they were housed in and take a complimentary copy of Guardian Weekly. It was a novel approach from the newspaper that it hoped would drive more international readers to the magazine.

The year prior, in a bid to reach two million supporters by 2022, the Guardian flyposted its ‘Hope is Power’ campaign across the UK to highlight the crucial role that the newspaper plays in giving people information that enables them to challenge the status quo.

So it felt fitting that as part of the big birthday celebrations, 230 outdoor placements would be erected across London and Manchester, including a banner at Manchester Piccadilly, which has been treated with a pollution-absorbing coating Pureti, and a series of special-build ‘work in progress’ billboards.

“There was a lot of different ideas that we played with – we wanted each of the pieces of OOH to speak through the messaging but also how it was showing up in the world,” says Davies, including the ‘to be continued’ billboard that highlights how its role in the world will be continued.

“But there’s also a playful element to it,” she says. “It’s a continuation of that idea that every piece does two things – it talks to our readers through messaging, but also through its placement. That’s something we want to always think about with our OOH buys – especially when you’re buying static. It’s important that it’s interesting – that it’s not just something that sits on the streets for two weeks.”

The campaign also features three films created in collaboration with Independent Films. Each explores the idea of progress as it relates to the environment, equality and humanity at large, with voiceovers from the late Ursula K Le Guin, former Observer journalist Alan Ross, and poet and author Salena Godden. It also features the song ‘Immunity’ written and performed by Jon Hopkins.

“We really wanted to get across this sense of history, but also the sense of things being unfinished and us being on a journey,” explains Jacobs, on how the films relate to the wider campaign. “Along with little bits of snippets of audio speeches that felt timeless, we married that with imagery, which was a really interesting way for us to talk to change over time.”

“The thing about turning 200 is you have this moment of reflection, because you’re evaluating the world as it is and how it was,” explains Davies. “You have this window into what’s going on – a moment of pause and reflection. What Oliver achieved through the films was this feeling that you’re eavesdropping at this moment in time.”

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