Lori Davison on her move to the ROM, and accomplishments with SickKids

One of the country’s biggest marketing success stories over the last four years has been the bold campaign to raise $1.3 billion for Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

Each year the “Vs.” creative has captured attention, awards show hardware and, most important, opened donor wallets.

Now the client-side architect of that campaign, Lori Davison, is leaving the SickKids Foundation, moving a few blocks north to take over the top marketing job with the Royal Ontario Museum later this month. The Message spoke with Davison about her decision to join the ROM and her time at SickKids Foundation.

Why make this move? I was approached about the role a number of months ago. I’ve been approached for other things, but this one really spoke to me as a very unique opportunity that I could see myself move into—and there aren’t many of them, to be honest.

I love SickKids. It’s been just an extraordinary experience. But this [new job] has a lot built into it that is similar to what really energized me at SickKids.

How so? I think there are a lot of interesting analogies: it’s a Toronto institution that is beloved, and perhaps has not realized its full potential as a brand.

It’s an organization that is at a moment in time where there is a tremendous new ambition in the strategic plan to transform it into a 21st century institution that has a much more dynamic relationship with the city—that becomes a real cultural force for Toronto.

Similarly, when I arrived at SickKids [in 2014], it was at a moment in time where the organization was poised for this massive capital campaign to transform the hospital. So it just feels like the beginning of something.

Would you have considered the private sector, or is this a space where you feel comfortable now. I don’t think it’s a question of comfort, it’s a question of passion. It’s subject matter that I get really energized by, and I think my career decisions are being led more by that now.

I love brands in general. I’m first and foremost a brand person, so I would never say never to doing something that is more private sector… but it’s more [this] subject matter, the opportunity, the upside, the amount of transformation that’s possible that really draws me.

These are both institutions people are passionate about in ways they aren’t with toothpaste and soaps. Yeah, I can see that. But I worked in FI for years [at BBDO] and I was very passionate about that sector. I loved working on RBC… I found that completely energizing as well. It’s the bigness of it that I get excited about. And I think this has that.

What are the priorities for the ROM brand as you go in there? There is going to be a redevelopment. I don’t know all the details yet because I haven’t started… but there are plans to blow out the main floor and make it much more of a hub for Toronto. There is a physical transformation as part of the plan.

But the broader strategy that I’m involved in has more to do with bringing in more interdisciplinary, provocative exhibitions that actually create dialogue, and pushing the conversation out beyond the walls of the building—to be really central to the culture of Toronto, and not just a dusty old museum as we think of museums, but an actual force for conversation and dialogue and change.

And I think about the moment in time we’re at now, where we’re all asking ourselves ‘Who are we? What are we, and what is our purpose on this planet?’ I think there are cultural organizations that can be at the centre of that conversation and provoking dialogue. It’s a very exciting time to be informing that conversation.

So this opportunity became more interesting to you now because of COVID and those kinds of conversations? I think it crystallized for me… I’m a person that reads a lot of non-fiction and history and all of that. It’s always interested me. But the questions I was asking myself over the last five months about my own place in the universe definitely inform my ideas about what could be possible in a role like this.

And I know this is a conversation that we’re all having with each other and with ourselves. So, yeah, absolutely it has informed my energy around that.

You mentioned bringing in provocative exhibitions. So is that part of your mandate? My understanding is that I’m part of the conversation, definitely at the table… to talk through the curation side of things. And then also figure out what is the compelling value proposition at the core of this that is going to get people excited about it and really hone in on an insight that is unignorable.

Let’s finish on SickKids. What have you gained over the past six years or what are most proud of? I have always been a person who is optimistic—I think that’s part of the power that I’ve brought to my work. And I think what it has reinforced for me is the power of dwelling in possibility.

I’m most proud of our ability to land on a powerful point of view and stay the course. In my agency experience over the years I’ve seen a lot of great ideas presented, but the ones that actually go the distance are so few and far between, because there are so many barriers and obstacles and difficulties that get in the way.

So I’m most proud of our ability to see it through, and make the kind of impact that we have for the hospital that is going to change child health for a generation—and that’s not an exaggeration, that’s the literal truth.

Are you talking about overcoming scepticism to Vs.? Yeah, and I think it was partly the way that we did it that enabled us.

I learned a lot from working with banks in terms of great big, complex, multi-stakeholder environments, where you need to do stakeholder relations. You need to gain consensus and an army of support if you’re going to be successful.

So as much as the creative strategy was genius and right on point… we also had a stakeholder engagement plan that was a full year—it was 12 months between the time we bought the idea and the day we launched it. We inched through the organization group by group by group, all the way down to the patients and parents, so that by the time we launched, we just had this whole army of support.

We listened along the way, but we weren’t looking for permission either. It was more ‘This is where we’re going, join us.’

The campaign hasn’t quite reached the $1.3 billion goal yet. I would not have considered leaving without knowing we’re going to achieve that goal—knowing for certain we’re going to achieve that goal.

David Brown