SickKids ‘VS’ has transformed lives, including those of its creators

Cossette and SickKids Foundation unveiled “This is Why” Thursday, the fourth iteration of their ambitious “VS” campaign, complete with a Hollywood-style screening for more than 200 patients and stakeholders who walked the “blue carpet” to the hospital’s John & Myrna Daniels Hollywood Theatre.

The largest fundraising initiative in Canadian healthcare history, “VS” is now three-quarters of the way towards achieving what SickKids Foundation CEO Ted Garrard described as a “big bold goal” of $1.3 billion for a new building.

Tahcari Green (centre), one of the stars of the latest SickKids ad, is awaiting a kidney transplant and visits the hospital four times a week for dialysis.

After two previous campaigns set outside the hospital (2017 and 2018), the new campaign once again places the action squarely within SickKids’ operating rooms, hallways and waiting rooms (similar to the launch ad in 2016). The ads are soundtracked by a haunting version of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt,” with scenes of anxious parents, concerned doctors and young children undergoing treatment at the hospital (see “This is Why” below).

“It’s really showing that the fight goes on every single day in this hospital—a fight that we’re winning, but we still have more to do,” said Garrard. “We need this kind of creative energy to jolt people on the sidelines to put up their hand and say ‘I want to support SickKids, too.'”

It’s easy to view “VS” as mere “advertising,” particularly since Cossette’s stated objective for the campaign is to have SickKids act like a performance brand—complete with the type of high-profile advertising that goes hand-in-hand with such a strategy.

But the screening on Thursday also brought home the fact that these ads chronicle the harrowing experiences of actual patients, families and hospital staff. It’s the journey of a teenager like Jordan, who sustained a life-changing injury at 14 when a block of ice the size of a van crashed through the roof of a sports dome and crushed his spine, or nine-year old Sahara, who has endured four rounds of chemotherapy in her fight against cancer.

There was an audible “Wow” from within the darkened auditorium after the campaign’s anthem spot aired, and emotional parents were dabbing their eyes when the theatre’s lights went up.

Beyond being a landmark campaign in the healthcare space, “VS” has significantly affected the lives of the people behind it. The Message spoke with Cossette’s executive creative director Craig McIntosh, and Andrew Hart, associate director of content, SickKids Foundation, about the campaign’s impact, what goes into making the spots, and where it goes from here. First, Craig McIntosh.

What has this campaign meant for you personally?

“It’s been life-changing [and] super-rewarding. I’m a parent of two children, which instantly gives you a different perspective on life, especially working within advertising.

“Once you see kids fighting for their life it gives you a little bit of perspective. Is a banner ad for potato chips all that important? Staying until three in the morning and missing their birthday? No. It instantly made us more empathetic.”

You came out of the gate strongly with this campaign. How have you been able to build on that work?

“Every year we have a different goal. Year one was about disruption—we had to change what people thought about SickKids and their assumptions about charities. Year two was the ‘declare’ phase, where we announced the need for a new hospital. Year three we focused on the donors, because we needed to rally fundraisers.

“This year we really wanted to remind people why we needed a new hospital, so we wanted to bring it back to the kids and show people that there’s still a need. We can’t stop fighting until this hospital’s built.

“We’ve stripped away the bravado of the ‘VS’ campaign… showing what’s going on inside the hospital. It’s what’s behind the bravado of the “VS” imagery, and showing that kids are still fighting for their life every single minute of the day. The general public doesn’t get to see what’s going on behind those brick walls when they’re walking down University Avenue; there are life-and-death battles going on every single day, and we just wanted to remind people of that.”

What do you look for when it comes to creating these ads? How are the patients selected?

“It’s a super-fluid and flexible process. It’s unlike a traditional campaign where you write the script and storyboard and say ‘We need this shot and this shot.’ A lot of it is working with Lisa Charendoff [associate director of community stakeholder relations at SickKids Foundation] to find kids that are available and have interesting stories, and then we write the scripts around them.

“We work with [director] Mark Zibert and talk to the kids and learn their story and build scenes around them. Even in the first year, when we did the ‘Undeniable’ spot, we imagined their inner warrior which was manifested onscreen as a wrestler or a tiger. We didn’t just choose that randomly; it was talking with the kids.

“One of the children told us ‘When I was going through chemotherapy, I imagined there were a million little soldiers inside me fighting the cancer.’ The stories really come from the kids.”

You’ve created a series of individual stories around some of the kids featured in the anthem spot (see below).

“We love those because it’s not just about their illness. The illness is just a part of that kid’s story. Our intent and hope is to do way more of those, because I think that’s what really resonates.”

You’ve talked about turning SickKids into a “performance brand.” Can you elaborate on that?

“It came from our very first visit to this hospital. We do that with all of our teams that work on the brand. Lisa takes them on a three-hour tour, where they get to talk to patients and doctors and hear stories. It immediately struck us that this wasn’t a weak, vulnerable, needy hospital. We saw world-class doctors at the forefront of medicine: they’re the LeBron James and Michael Jordans of medicine. That informed everything for us.

“People want to join a winning team. They want to know that their money’s not just going into a black hole, that it’s having an effect and saving kids’ lives. Instead of just doing a quarter-page newspaper ad that’s so typical of cause marketing, [we said] ‘Let’s take over Yonge-Dundas Square. Let’s show the kids like we would Michael Jordan: Big and tall.’ We wanted to show the kids with their feeding tubes and so on, but looking defiant and strong.

“There are some devastating and emotional things going on here, but these kids are all smiling all the time. Unless you’re walking through the halls and see it, you would never know.”

You could achieve your fundraising goal of $1.3 billion with this campaign. What’s next?

“The hospital will be built, but cancer’s not cured; cystic fibrosis isn’t cured. Working on this business, it’s crazy how close we are coming to some cures or treatments for certain illnesses that you never would have thought would happen even a decade ago. It’s pretty remarkable to be a part of that and see the year-over-year advances.

“The ultimate mission statement of SickKids is to never stop fighting until every child is a healthy child, so it’s way bigger than just a new hospital.”

Andrew Hart, associate director of content, SickKids Foundation.

What has the VS campaign meant to SickKids Foundation?

“There was a definite strategy to target new donors, younger donors. Before this campaign, the Foundation did a really good job of talking to the same people. You’re hitting the well over and over and over again, so how do you grow that? You have to speak differently and reframe everything, so going from ‘Help us’ to ‘Join us’ was a massive shift.

“There was an insight, and it’s true, that anyone you talk to has some sort of connection with this hospital, whether it’s a friend, a sibling or your own child. If we can tap into that in a new and persuasive way, then we’ve got that new audience.

“Right away we started noticing that donations were going up and there was a lot of media coverage. Both the general public and the media clued in and said ‘This is different.’

“There were some negative responses to the original, but when you do something that makes a lot of noise, you’re going to get that. That negativity was quickly turned around once they saw that whole campaign as an ecosystem, not just as one video.

What are you thoughts on this latest iteration?

“It’s smart because what we’ve done is go back to the patients and staff. We set out with that, and then started focusing on the general public, and then we switched focus to the donors.

“Re-focusing on the patients and families helps reinforce that it’s SickKids versus the greatest challenges in child health. It really lifts these kids up and makes them feel amazing.

“Doing those separate pieces, viewers might not react to one piece in isolation, but you’ll see something else that will resonate. There are all these levers we can pull.

Chris Powell