The Lockdown Leap Year: Meet the Team Behind the Government Ads That Helped Britain Keep Calm and Carry On
This month marks the anniversary of the pandemic hitting the UK. On 23rd March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the official announcement that we were to go into lockdown. Overnight, we were forced to turn our version of normality on its head and get used to the “new normal”. But no one could have predicted just how long and tumultuous this journey was going to be.
From the shock of the very first lockdown to our hopes of a free-spirited summer; the frustration of a second lockdown to the sorrow of Christmas spent apart; and finally, to where we are now, tentatively emerging out of our third lockdown, hoping for a clean getaway. It’s been a heartbreaking year, tough on even the strongest among us. So what was it like to be a crucial part in keeping us safe through it all, when no one wanted to listen?
A huge majority of the lockdown messaging that helped guide us through this tumultuous year in the UK was created by MullenLowe Group who worked tirelessly with KODE MEDIA and Jungle Studios to get messaging out to the masses from day one.
In this interview, LBB speaks to the creatives at MullenLowe Group and Jungle Studios on how they kept Britain informed and what really happened after 5pm briefings....
LBB> When the pandemic first hit, you had to turn around an incredibly quick ad with Chris Whitty to spread the message and save lives. What was that experience like and how did you overcome the challenge?
Nicholas Kurs, producer, MullenLowe> Although the medical situation was utterly daunting, the challenge itself was quite exciting. There was a real sense of having to react to a global problem and a responsibility to help the public with our communication: how to keep safe and protect your loved ones.
We partnered with director David Barr and KODE MEDIA as we needed an experienced director and an agile crew to navigate the quick turnaround and also to guide Chris Witty through the process. The biggest challenge on the day was accommodating for Chris Witty’s diary. As you can imagine, he’s an extremely busy guy and his diary reflected this. Constantly changing on a minute-to-minute basis, we had to be available and ready to turn-over within a few moment’s notice. Alongside this, the verbal and written messaging was in a constant state of evolution and we would often be updating the teleprompter only seconds before turning over.
Dominic Dew, sound designer, Jungle> It was an unbelievably strange time. No-one was really sure what was going to happen, and for how long. At Jungle, we'd all been glued to the TV every evening for the 5pm update from Boris and Chris Witty. Thankfully, we'd been preparing for the worst for a couple of weeks, making sure we had all the right software, plugins and SFX so that we could immediately start working from home.
I went home as normal on the evening of 23rd March. I got a call when I got home asking if I could do a last-minute job and that the files would be with me at some point, but it was likely to be late. I finally received the edit and sound files I needed at about 1am. And there was Chris Witty, telling me that we all had to stay home and only leave the house for food and medicine. It was surreal to say the least. But I mixed it out and sent it out for approval like any other job. And the next day, there it was on every TV up and down the country!
LBB> For Look Me In The Eyes, what was your initial vision going into the project, and how close is the finished film to that vision?
Jane Briers & Dave Cornmell, creative team, MullenLowe> We wanted something that would make people sit up and take notice. Hospital admissions were going up at an alarming rate but there were still plenty of people ignoring the safety advice so we were looking for a campaign that would challenge their apathy.
The idea came from a raw, emotive photo of an NHS nurse. The image was framed in close up and the main focus were her tired, teary eyes looking out over her facemask. There were a lot of these images about at the time, but the thing that was different about this one was the sense of pride, determination and challenge in her stare. It encapsulated the tone we needed. The line came pretty quickly after that. When we expanded the campaign to include Covid-19 sufferers too, it became even more powerful. The finished ads certainly delivered the impact we were after.
Alex Wilson-Thame, sound designer, Jungle> The creative vision for this piece started in a very strong place - the intensity of the situation was clearly captured in the imagery. We all felt it would be a disservice to inject sounds of the situations into the piece, as it could have been too distracting and lead your focus in the wrong direction. The team had delicately approached the filming, as these are real people suffering, as well as NHS staff stretched to their limits. The tone was set by a sobering composition by Felix, Theo and James. Mixed with faint distortions and statics, it added a new dimension to the piece which created an uncomfortable overtone over the piano. The VO was recorded remotely with Iain Glen from his home, in which his natural tone and cadence was the right balance of severity and reason.
LBB> For Enjoy Summer Safely, you had to take a bit of a different approach - how did this campaign differ to the more serious ones?
Nicholas Kurs, producer, MullenLowe> This production was entirely different. The messaging was one of hope and optimism and although the theme was very different, the challenge was much greater. From script approval to the ad being on-air was only 15 days. At the point of inception, this timeline felt totally unachievable, especially given the new rules and protocols around shooting and non-attendance to anything post-production.
The idea evolved around a polar opposite energy to the first campaign – hope / optimism. So, for this production we partnered with Fred Rowson from BLINK and he was the embodiment of this energy and spirit. The film itself is a mixture of live action, UGC, stock footage and animation. The success of the production relied solely upon complete trust from all parties. Every production element had been accelerated to the ‘nth’ degree, often dealing with review/approval lead times in hours rather than days. This trust was an essential part of the process and the reason behind the success of the spot. Although the messaging was similar to the previous campaigns, the idea, on-screen visuals, pace of cut, and positive audio cues (sound design and music), enabled us to add a lightness and a sense of hope to the situation around us.
Ben Leeves, creative director, Jungle> The brief was always about fun and opening up, and the key was to convey that message. So lots of busy morning sounds to start the day and then adding sounds that we hear throughout a lovely summer’s day such as outdoors fun. The sounds were chosen to give a general feeling of excitement and anticipation of the things we have missed. We were still in lockdown at the time, so the commercial was mixed at home. This gave me access to foley items, including my 10 year old daughter’s voice. You can also hear our bookings team member Julia’s dulcet tones in there too!
LBB> How did you capture very genuine and human emotions of people throughout these campaigns?
Jane Briers & Dave Cornmell, creative team, MullenLowe> Very simply, we used real people; so the human emotions you see, in Everyone You Love and Look Me In The Eyes feel real because they are. It would have been impossible to convey this any other way – actors just wouldn’t have worked. In the case of Look Me In The Eyes, due to Covid-19 restrictions, only the director/photographer Simon Ratigan and his DOP Martin Hill, were allowed access to patients and NHS staff. So what we got was down to Simon’s skill and ability to make everyone feel at ease and give such powerful performances.
LBB> What was the production process like for these campaigns?
Sian Parker, producer, MullenLowe> Shooting during lockdown is challenging enough but the biggest obstacle to overcome was the timeline. Due to the ever-shifting Covid-19 situation, on most jobs we would have two weeks from sign off to ad on air - condensing the production process into that short a schedule means long hours and a huge amount of pressure on everyone involved. It really is all hands-on deck.
Shoot attendance varied depending on the job and what tier we were in but we would normally have at least one creative on set. The exception to that was what would have been the most harrowing shoot, in the hospitals with patients and staff this February. Crew and attendance were kept to an absolute minimum, with only four people going into wards to film. The last thing we wanted to do was make the hospital staff’s work any harder and we also wanted to minimise the number of people we put at risk by going into those Covid-19 wards. By all accounts, it was an extremely emotional shoot.
LBB> The use of sound and music really drives the emotion and pace of these ads. Can you tell us about the creative processes and thinking behind this?
Dominic Dew, sound designer, Jungle> On the ads that I've worked on, there has always been a huge focus on the music and sound, and the levels of positivity/gravitas that the sound and music need to convey. Depending on the messaging of the ad, it's vital that the music and sound deliver the same message. If it's focusing on encouraging people to get themselves tested as in the NHS Test and Trace ad that I worked on, then the music and sound can be a bit more positive, to suggest that cooperation will lead to a more positive outcome. If the message is more about warning people about the potential dangers of the virus like in the Stay Alert ad, then the music and sound need to be more sombre, but not so much as to be sad or depressing.
So, there is a very fine balance that needs to be reached with music and sound design on these ads, especially as the ads are 100% designed to deliver the message that HM Gov wants to convey at that particular stage of the pandemic.
Ben Leeves, creative director, Jungle> The music was already selected for Enjoy Summer Safely, but needed more punch and cut through. So I remastered it to give it that punch and sparkle! Then all the sound design had to work in harmony with the music. So all the sounds were selected and manipulated to add to the music, rather than sit on top.
Chris Turner, sound designer, Jungle> For the radio ads, on the other hand, no music or sfx were added. The reason for this is exactly as you say, music and sound design drive emotion and for the radio campaigns it was important the messaging wasn’t clouded by adding emotion.
Stuart Allen-Hynd, sound designer, Jungle> On the radio spots I worked on, the VO's performance was crucial. It was about getting a read that sounded authentic and genuine to the piece. Some of the VO's used weren't voiceovers by trade but teachers and students, so it was about coaching them through and getting them comfortable in the booth. Only then do you get the best results. If the VO is scared and anxious, you can often hear a tightness or a wobble in their voice, so it's about doing everything you can to ensure the VO is feeling as relaxed and as comfortable as possible.
LBB> What does it feel like to have been involved in such important government campaigns throughout the past year? What learnings have you taken away from the experience?
Sian Parker, producer, MullenLowe> It’s been very satisfying to work on something that can genuinely make a positive difference. That’s quite rare in advertising! You just hope each spot has the desired impact and changes behaviours enough to save lives.
Dave Cornmell, copywriter, MullenLowe> It’s been a nice change from working on chocolate bars and cars. They’ve been tough briefs to work on, but I think we’ve done ok.
Jane Briers, art director, MullenLowe> It’s all a bit crazy really but I’m really proud of the work we’ve done. And guess I’ve learnt that it doesn’t have to take a year and a half to make an advert. We’re averaging two-week turnarounds, and that’s including research! Exhausting but kind of refreshing too.
Chris Turner, sound designer, Jungle> It feels good to have played a part in keeping people safe and informed.
Dominic Dew, sound designer, Jungle> Certainly, the day after the Chris Witty mix, I did feel a little heroic. At that point, no-one really knew what was about to happen. Was the virus as bad as we were being told? Or maybe it was worse than we were being told?! Was lockdown going to be a few weeks, or months? I don't think anyone thought it would continue as long as it has. So, when I was working on that mix at 1am, I did feel a bit like I was making a difference.
It's hard not to feel a little proud to have been part of the effort, however small a part that may be. And the quality of the work that I've been lucky enough to be involved with has also made it a pleasure to be part of. Genuinely, I feel like I have learnt a huge amount in this last year about the power and impact of media. And also, what we as an industry can achieve when we collaborate.
Ben Leeves, creative director, Jungle> Seeing the whole pandemic unfold, I've been pleased to see government films that help cut through social media misinformation. You would hope that what the government puts on TV is correct and fact checked. I used to work on campaigns for the COI years ago and always felt it was the government’s duty to get messages across on channels that the viewer/ listener will see them. So it’s good to see them back on terrestrial TV and radio. On a side note, the team at the agency really work all hours to get them out and on air, props to them for all their hard work!
LBB> How do you personally feel, a year on from when the pandemic first hit the UK?
Sian Parker, producer, MullenLowe> Honestly, pretty worn out, and I’ve had it easy in the grand scheme of things. I think we’re all craving normality more than ever now – meeting someone for a quick drink after work, chatting to your desk mates about stuff, the small things. Just interacting with people more directly. Remote working is not for me!
Jane Briers, art director, MullenLowe> Very ready to start seeing friends and family again. I miss my mam and ad.
Chris Turner, sound designer, Jungle> Hopeful that we’re near the end of the pandemic.
Ben Leeves, creative director, Jungle> Taking any political leanings out of this answer is hard! So I’d say that the tragedy of many lost lives is awful, too hard to comprehend sometimes. So from that standpoint it’s difficult to say what’s happened in your own life compared to those that have lost loved ones. But to see Soho, a place that I have worked for 30 years, so quiet with businesses gone is awful. I hope that we can get back to some semblance of normality and those businesses can survive and prosper.
Featured Companies: MullenLowe Group UK