Some ‘Good Thinking’ from APG tackles vaccine hesitancy

Along with increased family time and streamed content consumption, the mind-bending disruption of the past year also led to a lot of self-reflection and introspection.

Penny Norman, planning director for Pound & Grain Digital in Vancouver, saw this in her social channels and across her professional network of strategists and planners. “It prompted a lot of people to question their role in society,” she said.

By the end of the year, even people who loved their work for brands and driving profit for clients wondered if they could be using their skills for something more. “What am I doing with my life kind of questions were coming up,” she said.

Norman pondered this for a while before realizing that this is an industry with unique skills and brainpower that can be used to solve real world problems. “Vaccine hesitancy for me was a massive issue,” she said.

Norman knew the studies and reports about the importance of overcoming vaccine hesitancy to ensure as many people as possible get their shot: various estimates suggest we need 80% of people to get vaccinated to end the pandemic, but studies have shown only about 66% are eager to get a shot. But it also felt personal to her. “I’m a mom of three, and I have been approached by anti-vaxxers,” she said. “Twice I’ve been attacked on buses.”

A long-time member of the Account Planning Group, Norman suggested in mid-February that the group host a new initiative putting planners together with subject matter experts to tackle real world problems, providing their solutions and strategies as open-source material for anyone to adopt and use as they see fit—and they would start with vaccine hesitancy.

“They were like, ‘This is brilliant. Yes, do it,'” she said. And so, APG’s “Good Thinking” was born.

After getting the green light, Norman’s next step was to connect with vaccine hesitancy experts, those who understand the issues and unique conditions of different communities, but aren’t equipped to turn that understanding into real action. “They find it really hard to translate that to communications,” she said. “What’s the behavioural insight that’s going to trigger someone to think differently? That’s the gap for them.”

She contacted Dr. Julie Bettinger from the B.C. Children’s Hospital Research Institute first. Bettinger not only wanted to take part, but brought along five other specialists. Norman then had to find the strategists and planners. “I was terrified because I had it all lined up, I had a website and I had no strategists.” She didn’t have to worry. The request went out through the APG list, and she received 40 applications within 48 hours.

The participants were divided into six groups, each tackling a hesitancy issue: safety concerns, hesitancy in Quebec, amongst newcomers, within communities of colour, among those experiencing homelessness, and for pregnant people.

Each team was structured to have a mix of senior, intermediate and juniors. “We really wanted to make this as diverse and inclusive as possible,” said Norman. So aside from inviting senior strategists from underrepresented communities, the junior spots were reserved only for BIPOC strategists.

The teams were briefed on April 22 and given just two weeks to work the problem and present their strategy on May 6. “Those of us who work in strategy often have to go off and figure stuff out on our own, and the pandemic has left many of us feeling even more isolated,” said Matthew Michels, senior strategist at The&Partnership. “Getting to tackle such a worthwhile issue with a keen group of collaborative minds is a strategist’s dream, and the energy was infectious throughout the entire process.”

“The rough guideline I gave them was set up the problem you’re tackling up front, pull in a series of insights that really lead to your approach, talk about what your approach is—it could be a collaboration, or it could be an influencer play, whatever it is—talk that through, and then talk about how that could be applied,” said Norman.

Finally, participants were asked to include both the pros and cons of their proposal. The goal was not to sell the ideas, said Norman, but do the heavy lifting that goes into properly articulating a problem and landing on an insight and possible approaches. “Adding the pros and cons allows someone to read this and go ‘Okay that could work for what I’m looking at,’ or ‘I see this would fall down if I did it this way.'”

“In advertising, we’re always pitching and selling an idea, but that’s not the sort of vibe I wanted.”

After the presentations last week—all of which are available at the APG Good Thinking site—a couple of agencies have expressed early interest in picking up what Good Thinking has done to explore campaigns. One of the experts, Dr. Noni MacDonald, will share the work with Health Canada and the World Health Organization.

“It’s really exciting that some of the biggest players in the world and Canada will be looking at these outcomes which is phenomenal,” said Norman.

The strategists themselves were similarly touched by the experience of using their skills and work with others to tackle such an important problem.

“There are a handful of times in a planner’s career when you receive a brief that really resonates and stays with you—rarer still is the opportunity to use what we know about changing behaviour to try to help solve such a meaningful and urgent problem,” said Meg Kerr, senior director of strategy for Mosaic North America. “It was incredible to see such a large and diverse group of planners from across the country come together to help solve Canada’s most pressing public health issue.”

“The great John Bartle once said that the best strategists were generous at heart,” added Jeenal Patel, manager of strategy for UM. “It was an enriching experience to work with not only the best brains in the country, but also with the most empathetic hearts. The organizers, subject matter experts, advisors and the strategists together made an excellent think-tank that delivered some smart solutions to a prevalent social problem.”

While advertising is well-known for producing good charity work and creative for important causes, the number of times that work shows up in awards shows can from time to time raise eyebrows about underlying motives for the agency involved. Good Thinking is not that.

“What we need is effective work, not just an award-winning, this is cool kind of thing,” said Norman. Good Thinking will take on one or two big problems a year, offering strategy and insight that anyone can use to solve real problems. “I think what’s really exciting about this initiative is that it actually gets to work that will be better and more effective, just because it’s so strategy led, and that’s what gets me really excited.”

David Brown