A few weeks ago I got a call from Duncan Grieve, the founder and managing editor of The Spinoff, the New Zealand online magazine of which I am a board member.
“Can you join us for a call with the World Health Organisation. They seem to want us to help them with their Covid-19 public information campaign and I’m a bit freaked. Isn’t this the biggest communications job in the world”? he asked .
He was right, and given President Trump’s just launched broadsides against them, the WHO were the most high profile organisation in the world too. Surely a job for a London or New York based global creative or communication agency not a small New Zealand media company with a sideline in producing content directly for companies and brands.
Maybe in more normal times it would have been, but as we learned on the call, they had already seen the creative solution to their biggest communications task and the last thing they wanted was an expensive and time consuming pitch. What had caught their eye was the Spinoff’s words, illustrations and Gifs that had covered the extraordinary story of New Zealand’s response to the pandemic and had arguably played a significant part in getting the country to back the government’s bold and ultimately effective strategy of stamping out the virus entirely.
The key element in this were the words of epidemiologist Sioxsie Wiles and GIFs and cartoons of illustrator Toby Morris. This was the classic early one that explained the relationship between goal of the lockdown with the country’s medical capacity.
If you don’t live in New Zealand and yet this GIF is familiar to you, well then that might be because your own health service used it directly (The Spinoff made all this work Creative Commons so anyone could reproduce it) or you saw the versions adopted by companies and organisations world wide. President Obama and the World Economic Forum adapted it for example.
Despite this global attention on the work of his team, Duncan thought the initial call was a hoax and only began to take the request seriously after checking out the client actually existed on Linkedin. They did and their request for help on the subsequent briefing call was focused, sincere and very urgent.
Two things happened after the call that would not have with a more traditional agency. The first was that The Spinoff team started producing the first creative words, illustrations and the treatment for a video which were delivered within 24 hours. Pandemics do not wait for classic planning structures or creative review processes.
The second was that we had to build a global account team, because we didn’t have one lying around. The Spinoff have a fabulously effective commercial team and of course wonderfully talented journalists and creatives and production people, but not account teams. Within a week we were interviewing Account Directors and were massively fortunate to discover Jess Milne who was supposed to be taking up a big new New York based agency role before new jobs were shut down by the lockdowns. Ironically Covid-19 came to her rescue and The Spinoffs and she was in the hot seat days later and putting structure and sanity around the whole thing and bringing in a team and just cranking it out.
Until now all The Spinoff’s clients have been New Zealand based, so the team have adapted to the rhythm familiar to all global account people with odd hour briefings and morning inboxes stuffed with account traffic and requests from now sleeping clients in Geneva.
As a lifelong agency person I am not sure that any business I have ever worked in could have reacted in this way and produced such impactful content as fast. That is tribute in part to a client who knows what they want which is bloody rare. But sometimes newsroom trained creative should lead and account management and planning can be backed into that. With a global pandemic raging and good communications literally contributing to a lower body count, this was one of those rare times.
Here is a fuller version of this curious tale from today’s Stuff.
And here are some more examples of the New Zealand work: