How MullenLowe Created Their NHS Campaign

How MullenLowe Created Their NHS Campaign

Creative Director Hugh Todd takes us behind the scenes of the recent NHS spot and reveals how they created a spot celebrating 70 years in five short weeks.


The NHS celebrates its 70th anniversary this year with its first ad in 13 years - 'We Are The NHS' - created by MullenLowe London and directed by RSA Films’ Toby Dye.

Aimed at recruiting the next generation of nurses into the service, the ad simply, but deftly, portrays the enriching range of experiences an NHS worker goes through, from entertaining sick children or people with learning disabilities to comforting patients in distress and generally making life – and death – easier for people.

Shot on location in working hospitals in Margate and Ashford, the film also offers something new for adland – it's the first time a real birth has been featured in a UK commercial. Hugh Todd, MullenLowe's creative director on the project, discusses the challenges of putting the campaign together and the emotional rollercoaster of life inside the NHS.

What was the brief that the NHS set? 

We needed people to feel proud of the NHS, to remind them of what a great thing it is. To kind of thump their chest a little and say 'yes, we are (all) the NHS!’

And then encourage them to play their part in it. Particularly nurses. Within the nursing audience we had the three ‘R’s to hit:

We need to Retain existing nurses. 

Recruit new nurses.

And get nurses who had left to Return.

In that order.

Retain was the primary audience as it takes four years to train a new nurse. Whereas if the NHS can retain their existing staff, so much the better.

Did you immediately know how you wanted to approach it?

We wanted to be real, honest, show it how it is. We were inspired by shows such as 24 Hours in A&E and One Born Every Minute. With the public watching these every night, it’d be weird to then show something not this. We didn’t want to be 'addy'. We didn’t want to sugar coat what is a very challenging job.

 Was the plan always to go for a documentary approach?

Yes, 100%. At the pitch that was one of our main points. It must be real - so as not to mislead the public over what it takes to be a nurse. The primary audience for the ad were nurses already in the NHS, so if we didn’t get it right we would be slaughtered.

So, at every stage, we checked and checked and checked what we were showing was the truth. The mum of our amazing TV producer, Vanessa [Hunt], her mum is a nurse. The planner and account director’s sisters are both nurses. So, at every juncture we were checking in with them for authenticity.

Why was Toby Dye the best choice for director?

Toby was the perfect fit for this job because his work is nearly all documentary but has a contemporary look and feel to it. His Persil work, also for MullenLowe, was a good point of reference. 

He was extremely collaborative and was always thinking on his feet; crucial for this job as we had an extremely small amount of time to get a lot of footage.

We needed someone who was going to be like a third creative, in a way; no prima donna bullshit or fancy lenses or trying to get the perfectly lit shot. This was all about getting in and getting shooting, but with some guile and charm, which Toby has in buckets, as we were shooting at pace and trying to get permissions from people in sometimes distressing situations.

One minute he would be trying to shoot a live birth, the next he’d be whisked off to the dementia ward for a cuppa with the older generation, and then he’d be covering a patient having a stent inserted into their heart. Walking down corridors he managed to even get pick up shots of nurses on their rounds.

What were the logistics behind gaining access to a hospital(s) for the shoot?

The time frames were so tight we actually treated the pitch as a PPM. We’d seen the schedule and knew the ad had to one on air five weeks from pitch. We felt very confident in our idea and had already got three potential directors we knew could do the job lined up.

There were a few tense moments, and due to the nature of the structure of the NHS trusts, we were finding it challenging to get access to a hospital. However, in times of need people step up, just like in the NHS, and through her contacts at Ashford and Margate hospitals, Lovisa [Silburn, creative director] managed to get us full access at the 11th hour, just as we were all wondering whether we’d have to run the mood film as time had just about run out.

But after a super speedy recce and an unprecedented level of access at Ashford, we were in.

Can you shed some light on the shoot days; how low-key and unobtrusive did you need to be and what, if any, challenges did that present?

It was one of the most unorthodox shoots I’ve ever been on. Toby and his DP were basically moving around the hospital at speed ticking off whichever ward they could get in. We were sitting in a small room off reception with our client, waiting.

The occasional rogue patient would wander in thinking we were hospital workers which was pretty surreal. Toby would return ever hour or so and show us footage on his tiny monitor. We couldn’t change any shots, or go again, or questioning anyone’s performance. It was more of him just keeping us in the loop off what he was getting.

So, a lot was based on trust. But having seen his doc work and got to know him very quickly in the pre-prod period, we had total faith he was getting good stuff. The same was to be said of Adam Hinton too, the photographer who was getting our stills. They were both roving around hospitals different schedules reporting back in with their work. 

How much footage was shot and what the process of deciding what did and didn’t make the cut?

A lot! No idea how much, but after I while I was starting to feel sorry for Julian the editor. He was literally going to be given a mountain of footage on the Friday night, and we had to see edits first thing on the Monday. But he loved it. And being Toby’s editor for years, he knew the gig.

Tell us about the choice of music; how long did it take to make that choice and why was The Cinematic Orchestra the final decision?

Music was interesting. For the pitch we made a film which had The Cinematic Orchestra on. It worked so well for the emotion and it seemed to fit the pace of the film. However, we thought we could keep going. So, amid all the madness of filming TV and stills and digital we were talking about music. Over 300 tracks later we still hadn’t beaten it. At one stage music companies were saying to us, ‘why are you changing it? It’s brilliant’. So, we stuck with it.

What was the most challenging aspect of the project?

Time. 24 Hours in A&E takes over six months to plan. I know it’s a TV show, 60 minutes long etc, but we were trying to cover similar ground and territories in a 90-second spot. Many people told us it was impossible, and we’d never get it. But we kind of became more determined to make it happen. 

I think, because it was for the NHS, everyone just dug really deep. And when you see right in front of you the amazing things they do, it felt pretty humbling and we should play our part too. The alternative would have been to run the pitch mood film on TV, which none of us wanted.

 And the most rewarding?

So many brilliant things have already come from it. Everyone has cried - agency /client/nurses - even my dog had a tear in her eye the other night!

The response on Twitter from nurses has been incredible, saying how accurate it is and how it makes them proud to be part of such an amazing institution. And there was a huge spike in applications to become a nurse on the day the film went live which, let’s face it, is the real point; we need more nurses. It was quite apt the ad went out during the England v Colombia game, another emotional rollercoaster. 

 Did you feel any added pressure working on a ‘brand’ that is so beloved across the UK?

Yes, but in a good way. Once we’d got to the idea the work just spilled out of us. The campaign construction and line enabled us to fill it with all sorts of messages and moments of emotion. It’s lovely having a vehicle that can accommodate so much stuff. I think we felt it a duty to get it right.

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