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Case Study: Vangardist HIV Heroes Issue

Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi Switzerland
Brand:  Vangardist Magazine
Award: Yellow Pencil / Direct / Direct Mail / 2016     

In May 2015 Vangardist, with help from Saatchi & Saatchi Geneva, published a magazine printed in the blood of HIV positive people.

In this in-depth case study we trace the campaign from its gestation, through production and distribution to the worldwide response.

Read on for the extraordinary story behind this ground-breaking publication, which stretched the boundaries of what a magazine could achieve, and broke new ground in collaborations between publications and advertising agencies.

Case Study: Vangardist HIV Heroes Issue
Case Study: Vangardist HIV Heroes Issue


For Jason Romeyko, Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi, the idea of using infected blood had been a long time in the making.

“My partner Jan Teulings and I tried to do it for a newspaper in Belgium, then we brought the idea to Austria, but it was not made because of legal restrictions. So the idea went away.”

Eventually though, the right client was found in the form of Jason’s friend Julian Wiehl of Vangardist Magazine.

“They wanted to devote an entire issue to HIV Heroes – people living with HIV. He felt the magazine needed a big idea for this edition.”

And so the brief was born.

“That was our brief – how could we adapt the idea of printing something in HIV+ blood to Vangardist Magazine, and what would the message be?”



The team at Saatchi & Saatchi found that the conversation around HIV had diminished in recent years, but a stigma around it remained. During their research, a startling fact emerged: that there had been an 80% increase in new HIV cases in the 10 years since 2004. [source].

As Jason puts it, “It struck us as strange that nobody was talking about this.” With their insight pinned down, it was time to find partners to help the idea happen. “The advice was to find an NGO to support us. So we approached a whole host of them.”

But they were reluctant to get involved.

Bemused as to why NGOs wouldn’t help, Jason turned to the world of science to find supporters, “I called a leading expert in HIV, and he loved the idea. He explained that the 80% increase in infections is highlighting the fact that the NGOs are not making any progress…”

“The people who should be solving the issue were actually contributing to the stigma.”

This realisation proved to be a catalyst. “As soon as I understood we would not get NGO support I decided we would go ahead with the idea anyway. Sometimes when you’re trying to reignite a conversation you have to have that audacity and courage and go forward and do it.”

Jason and Jan had such faith in their idea that they even put their jobs on the line, offering to leave the agency if a lawsuit emerged.

Julian Wiehl believes the very essence of the idea was challenging for many, “Blood is something very mystical. The stories from the past are very close. 500 years ago it was forbidden to open bodies, it was something sacred. And these old beliefs are surprisingly still part of our culture.”

They subsequently secured endorsements from Harvard University and Innsbruck Medical University to reassure all involved that the risk of infection would be zero.

Case Study: Vangardist HIV Heroes Issue


Unusually, the team at Saatchi & Saatchi worked with the editorial team at Vangardist to create the magazine’s content. They asked the people who had donated blood for the ink to become the story also. This, of course, made finding the donors even more difficult.

“The biggest challenge we faced was finding the right blood donors. It was a very public thing that we asked people to do,” Jason explains. The final donors, and interviewees, were to include a variety of people. “I believe HIV is more than just a gay issue, it affects the whole community. We found the donors who had the courage to match the audacity of the agency and magazine.”

The donors included a young gay man, a woman whose husband had been living with knowledge of HIV for 10 years and infected her without her knowing, and a straight man who had struggled to find support for his condition.

Jason expands, “It’s more courageous for a donor to put their face on and blood in something than it is for agency or magazine to produce it.”

Donors now secured, the next problem was how to obtain the blood itself. Julian remembers the many obstacles they came up against, “Normally a hospital would kill a virus by heating up the blood and throwing it away. But through great luck we found a Professor, who agreed to do it and sign for it, taking all the risk of this process.

“We then had to find sponsors to transport the blood, because you can’t transport blood with your own car.”

The challenges were multiple, which for Julian had one benefit, “We were worried that someone else could steal the idea and try to do it themselves. But it was so complicated, there were so many obstacles, that we realised nobody else could have done it in such a short time.”

But the difficulties of an advertising agency working with a publisher continued throughout the production. As a natural problem solver, Jason saw this as an opportunity.

“For example, we argued for a long time over the cover. They were insistent that there must be a naked man on the front cover. But I argued that that wasn’t right for the serious message we had to get across.”

After much debate, the teams arrived at a solution they were all happy with.

“The cover worked for the idea: the 3,000 ‘infected’ print run was advertising a ‘non-infected’ print run of 15,000. The infected cover shows the texture and feel of Vangardist: you see edges of the body which appear on the cover of the non-infected version. It was what we needed to communicate, but was respectful of the magazine. It felt like art direction coup, which married fashion and advertising.”

Strong leadership from both teams, and mutual trust went a long way towards making the project a success.

Julien Wiehl explains, “It was the first time that Vangardist had worked with an ad agency. We’re used to doing things for ourselves, but the idea was from them. So we had to be careful to discuss how they expected the idea to work. And they had to respect the heritage of the magazine.”

Case Study: Vangardist HIV Heroes Issue


With the magazine headed to the printers, it was time to get it onto the shelves. But before distribution could begin, there was one more twist.

“I believe whenever there’s an obstacle there’s a creative way around it.” Explains Jason Romeyko “We were instructed legally that we needed to put a warning on the magazine. But I argued that would take away from the shock value.”

So they created what Jason calls a ‘moral dilemma’. Breaking the seal of an outer wrapper would allow you access to the magazine. The strap-line said it all: ‘Break the seal, help break the stigma’. 

“That moral dilemma that we added to it, which came from a legal issue, just made it better.”

The magazine was initially distributed to subscribers in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. But it wasn’t long until news spread… 

Case Study: Vangardist HIV Heroes Issue


Jason remembers the moments after the magazine launched, “The owner of Grindr called me the following day from LA demanding a copy. But the moment I really knew we were onto a good cause when the right wing American newspapers called me the “twisted queer soul behind the bilious idea”.

“You know when you’re pushing that button, you’ve made it. It became exactly what we wanted – a conversation around the topic was happening everywhere, and that’s the best sign.”

The team at Vangardist had a similar experience, “Many people wrote us letters about how grateful we were that we made the magazine.” Continues Julian, “They had conversations with their partners, in gay and heterosexual communities, over ‘would you or wouldn’t you touch the magazine’. In this discussion they found out about their own thoughts about HIV. They found out something about themselves. They found out they had never talked about this important topic.”

And there have been benefits for the magazine too, “We are now known for this campaign, which is good; we like our readers to be progressive people who like strong ideas. Now wherever I go, even when I call someone in New York, they know about it. It gives credit to the brand and makes it easier for us to work internationally.”

Case Study: Vangardist HIV Heroes Issue

For Saatchi & Saatchi Switzerland there were benefits too, Jason believes, “There was of course a knock on effect for the agency. People felt prouder, and people talked about it. It’s always been an international agency based in Switzerland, I wanted it help build the agency’s international reputation.”

“For Switzerland and Austria, it’s a real honor to win a D&AD Pencil. It just feels like a wonderful book-end to a wonderful story.“

Over 55 million people saw media exposure of the campaign, and social media interactions numbered over 7 million. Timed to coincide with the Life Ball in Vienna, and the Eurovision Song Content, endorsements came from Conchita Wurst and Adam Lambert. The campaign has picked up 26 awards worldwide to date, including three D&AD Pencils, for Direct, Media and PR.

Jason ends with the most important outcome, “This is about helping people, and about starting conversations. Since the issue there are a lot more campaigns generating conversations around HIV. So I feel it’s had a knock on effect in the industry. I’m really encouraged that there are more and more people talking about it.”

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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