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Case Study: Samaritans We Listen

AgencyMullenLowe London
Client:  Samaritans
AwardWood Pencil / Crafts for Advertising / Photography for Advertising / 2016


As part of Samaritans’ work to provide support to people when they are most in need, the charity works closely with the UK train industry to reduce suicides on the country’s railways. But they were aware that often their pleas were falling on deaf ears. In need of creative revitalisation, they asked a number of agencies to pitch for the work.

For MullenLowe London it was an opportunity to show their ability to deliver creative prowess, backed up with rigorous research. Head of Account Management Kirsteen Scoble explains their position, “When Samaritans came to us they had the challenge that people think of them as the last port of call, but their service is for anybody at any time of need.”

Samaritans had identified they were hearing from people when they were already at crisis point. MullenLowe’s Head of Strategy Anna Vogt spent time understanding the client’s needs. “Samaritans realised the best way they can prevent suicide is getting to people much much earlier. They want to get to the point of initial distress, rather than getting the last desperate phone call.”

Clearly this early stage research paid of, as the client was impressed with MullenLowe’s approach. Paul McDonald, Samaritans’ Executive Director of Communications, Policy & Campaigns expands “We were particularly impressed by Mullen Lowe in their pitch. It was clear they “got” Samaritans and had put a lot of thinking into the strategic approach they proposed.”

With the pitch secured, it was up to MullenLowe to find a way of reaching people early on.

We Listen


The first thing the team did was analyse what other brands in this space were doing. With recent campaigns from Samaritans and their contemporaries posted on the agency’s wall, Anna could clearly see a common pitfall: “We took a red marker pen and circled all the uses of the word ‘talk’. When we were done it was a sea of red. Everyone, including Samaritans, used the word.”

Research told them that often talking was actually the last thing people feel like doing. “You’ve got an audience who finds it really difficult to open up. And you’ve got a category of mental health charities who ask you to talk to them when you’re feeling bad. So you’ve got nowhere to go.“

Anna explains some background on this well known, but often misunderstood, charity: “Samaritans don’t tell you what to do. They don’t judge you. They believe everybody has the power to heal themselves. Because they don’t try and solve your problems for you, their core strength is listening.”

“So we said – why don’t we reposition Samaritans from a place where you talk about your problems, to a place that will listen to anything you have to say. “

Moving the brand from one that encouraged talking, to one that specialised in listening would become the breakthrough thought.

We Listen

The Creative Idea 

Anna found that for people to identify with the posters, they would need to reach out with real-life problems. “This was something that kept coming back to us, people saying: “‘I never think my problems are serious enough to warrant a call to Samaritans.’”” People were actively de-selecting themselves."So the team crafted statements based on some of the most common causes of distress. Highlighted words in the statements revealed the subtext, that despite seeming fine, people still needed to be heard.

For Chief Creative Officer Dave Henderson Dave it was crucial to consider the landscape that these posters would appear in, which he describes as “incredibly media-intense environments, with big brands screaming and shouting, and lots of happy people staring at you out of posters.”

“This led us down a route to find visual way to engage people beyond the usual. We hit upon this idea of not having people face the camera. Because on every poster everybody’s always looking out at you, we thought it would be fantastic if they weren’t looking at you. And it actually draws you in.”

Anna adds, “We were trying to unlock the fact that it was a service for everyone. Because people can’t actually see the face it’s easier for people to project themselves into that situation.”

There was an additional benefit from this photographic route. “Shooting them from this angle does give you the idea that Samaritans are going to treat what you say anonymously.”

But account lead Kirsteen still had a fight on her hands, “It was a big challenge to get to that place because it’s quite frightening for a client to shoot the backs of heads.” Luckily, audience tests proved that it was indeed an engaging way to address the audience. Paul McDonald agrees that they were initially reluctant, but, “What convinced us though was consistently positive responses from our target audiences in focus groups. The back of head shots seemed to really resonate with the audience.”

We Listen


With a photographic route decided upon, and a cautious client now convinced, it was time to begin production. For Dave, there was an obvious choice of photographer. “Nadav Kandar captures a certain humanity, and there’s always a little twist in his stuff, so when we discussed the idea with him he leapt on it. He was particularly intrigued about shooting portrait photography from this angle.”

Kandar explains why he chose to shoot this way, “A photograph that allows you to understand all that lies within it, is rapidly uninteresting. To turn away, distort or obscure a person asks questions and involves a viewer.

In this case for Samaritans the vulnerability was clearly shown and I applaud the client for trusting in a great creative agency.”

Kandar worked closely with creatives Denis Kakazu and Jack Patrick, beginning with the test shoot. Kirsteen remembers this well, “Part of the test was literally getting the right angle of the head. We began with straight on the back of the head. But that was too anonymous, it looked like they were ignoring you, and then we shot from every angle to see what was optimum.”

Dave adds, “We figured the perfect angle was just when you begin seeing an eyelash. It instantly personalises it. When the eyelash goes it becomes too anonymous. So it was quite a fine line.”

Angle decided, it was now time to choose the right subjects, “Casting was a careful process, looking at gender, age and race, as well as hair, facial hair, and of course wardrobe. We went through around 100 people. It’s hard to figure out who’s going to look interesting without seeing their face; hair and ears and glasses become very important.”

The final shoot took place at Spring Studios in Kentish Town.

The portraits were shot against a background of colour that would become a defining element for the whole campaign. Anna explains the rationale “We wanted colours that had an inherent sense of optimism in them. Looking at the category it’s all dark and bleak, so we wanted pastel colours to soften it. One thing Samaritans are keen on is emphasising that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that people can find a resolution to their problems. So the colours give you the sense that it’s not all hopeless.”

The colour choice ran from the photography, through the hidden messages in the text. “Once we knew the photo would be dominant, we knew the headline would have to sit above it. There was a conscious thing about making them not looking like helpline posters.” Once the art direction choice was finalised, the posters were sent to the client for approval.

We Listen


“The client was genuinely delighted. It’s been a challenging journey for them” Kirsteen explains, with a sigh of relief. “Charities have a lot of stakeholders, a lot of branches around the country, so there are lots of opinions to balance. They’d been particularly nervous about shooting backs of heads, seeing it in its final state and taking it to their board. But 99% of people were really excited. And particularly to get volunteers to say that it was representative of Samaritans, that was the extra bit that was important.”

The posters were launched at the beginning of 2016, and within six months had been rolled out throughout the UK in a multitude of shapes and sizes. The campaign is scheduled to last at least two years.

For strategist Anna this is the start of a powerful repositioning for the 63-year old charity. “We loved that we’d uncovered and elevated an insight. We’ve expressed it in poster form for now. We want to carry this forward as a torch and infect the country with it.”

The final word falls to Dave, who points out the importance of bravery in creative decision making. “For such a charity using great creativity like this is desperately important. To be awarded a D&AD Pencil you know you’re hitting the creative heights and putting Samaritans back where they deserve.”

If you think you have a campaign that deserves a Pencil, enter your work into the D&AD Awards and see if our judges agree. When it comes to awards, nothing matters more.

For more creative inspiration and the opportunity to get up close and personal with the world’s best design and advertising, join us at D&AD Festival.

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