SickKids fights back against the darkness

Who: SickKids Foundation, with Cossette for creative, Scouts Honour for production (Mark Zibert directing), Rajakovic Electric for audio, Outsider for editing, The Vanity for VFX, with PR from Citizen Relations and media from OMD Canada.

What: “Be a Light,” the sixth iteration of the massively successful and highly influential “SickKids VS” fundraising platform. It has become one of Canada’s highest profile brand platforms over the past decade, thanks to its unapologetically ambitious approach to cause marketing.

When & Where: The campaign launched Oct. 11, and runs through December. It features a 60-second hero spot running across TV and online and complemented by 15-second videos, print, and a series of out-of-home executions using TSAs and billboards around Toronto. There is also a two-and-a-half minute film that’s an extension of the campaign but is not yet being made widely available to the public (see it below).

Why: The campaign comes as the finish line for SickKids’ ambitious fundraising target to completely rebuild the world-famous hospital ($1.5 billion by 2023) begins to slowly come into view, albeit with work still to be done.

“We need to find fresh, bold and really relevant ways of making the need for a new SickKids resonate with people in order to get them to give,” said Kate Torrance, SickKids Foundation’s vice-president of brand strategy and communications. “We’ve had tremendous success, but the goal is so huge and important [that] our finish line is still a ways away.”

Among the key campaign objectives this year is acquiring 10,000 new monthly donors, more than double the number they’ve targeted in previous versions. Acquiring new monthly donors represents a “critical turf fight” in the non-profit space, said Heather Clark, senior vice-president of mass, direct and digital marketing for SickKids Foundation.

How: The 60-second hero spot opens on a young girl looking out over Toronto as an inky blackness begins slowly to take over, covering buildings, people’s homes, waiting rooms, operating rooms, etc., and gradually plunging the world into darkness.

The creative approach stems from an insight gleaned from speaking with patient families: When they first receive a bad diagnosis, it feels as if a dark cloud is taking over their world. “While that was very new for everyone going through Covid, it’s not new for SickKids families,” said Torrance. “The dark cloud that descends is basically what they face every time they receive a diagnosis.”

The second half of the spot features light representing the work of SickKids’ world-class medical teams reclaiming the world for their patients, with hundreds of young patients gathering together and lighting up the new SickKids. “Fight the dark cloud of childhood illness. Be a light and build the new SickKids,” reads the closing super. As has become customary over the years, SickKids patients and their families appear in the ad.

“What we wanted to drive home is that light is the counterpoint to darkness, and that’s what SickKids represents,” added Craig McIntosh, Cossette’s executive creative director. “The absolute best doctors, nurses and researchers in the world provide that sense of hope and optimism that you’ve got the best team fighting for you.”

The approach to media: SickKids has adopted a philosophy of “keep the proven and test the unknown” over the life of the program, said Clark.

While about 70% of the campaign’s efforts will be directed towards strategies that have proven effective in previous years, about 30% will go to new channels in an attempt to find what she calls a “magic bullet” capable of driving incremental growth in fundraising targets and can be incorporated into future campaigns.

There’s a lot of rigour put into KPIs and objective setting each year, said Clark, noting that the post-mortem for last year’s campaign was approximately 110 pages long.

Earned media also plays a vital role, said Torrance. “That organic and earned amplification of the content is so important, and part of why doing things that are bold and disruptive matters, because that’s what gets the attention of news [organizations].

“Not too many brands can rely on Global News doing a segment about an advertising campaign, but when we do something a bit risky, or lean into a really authentic insight about families’ experiences, that’s where we get the coverage, [leading to] more free views of our video and people talking about us.”

The look: A strong visual aesthetic has been a hallmark of “SickKids VS” campaign since its inception, and this year’s spot is no different. Zibert, whose resume includes similarly epic-feeling spots for organizations including the International Olympics Committee and Right to Play—as well as for clients including IKEA, Adidas, Nike and Kruger—has directed every instalment of the campaign, and has a real rapport with the creative team, said McIntosh. “He’s just another part of our team,” he said.

One of the primary sources of inspiration for the spot’s look was comic books, said McIntosh, but the creators also looked at microscopic shots of various diseases, specifically cancer cells. “They have a vascular nature as they replicate, they kind of stretch and grow, and that’s what we wanted to bring to the blackness,” he said. “We wanted the blackness to feel like illness and disease. Even the way it moves: Sometimes it’s slow, and sometimes it’s fast and sporadic.”

The music: The “SickKids VS” campaign is known for its reimagining of well-known songs by artists including Kate Bush, Nirvana, Guns ‘N Roses and Nine Inch Nails. This year’s version is no different, featuring a version of the hit Simple Minds song “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”

The song not only reflected the spot’s ’80s-inspired look, but its title was particularly pertinent at a time when child healthcare has taken a backseat to adult healthcare in the public eye, said McIntosh. While the title conveys the idea that children are still suffering and need the public’s help, lyrics such as “Love’s strange, so real in the dark/Think of the tender things that we were working on” create additional points of connection with the hospital’s mission, said Torrance. “It just felt like they wrote it for us.”

SickKids sent a rough cut of the film to the song’s U.K.-based writers, Keith Forsey and Steve W. Schiff, to provide some context for how their music would be used. It’s an approach that has worked well in the past. “Kate Bush seeing the work and seeing the role her song played, [led to her] saying ‘I’m so proud to be a part of this. Please take my song,'” said Torrance.

“They recognize what a great cause it is and a great level of craft in the creative that does their songs justice,” said McIntosh. “Showing them the work itself [lets them see that] it’s of a certain quality, and they can put their stamp on it.”

“VS” effect on the non-profit sector: “We do feel we’ve had a positive influence on the category,” said Torrance. “Previously I think there was a perception that as a charity your job was to highlight the need, show the gap and make people pity the cause or situation, and that’s what would open wallets. I think what we’ve demonstrated is that by showing positive momentum… and delivering it in a cooler, more disruptive way, that’s actually more effective.

“The ‘VS’ platform is all about winning, and who doesn’t want to join our winning team? We’ve seen the influence of that on the category, and Cossette’s braveness in terms of execution and pushing us to do things that are unexpected for the category has also changed the risk tolerance for other charities.

“As a leader in the sector, we see our role as being able to grow the philanthropic pie. We don’t want to take money from other charities—we want Canadians to give more. If we can share our learnings with other charities, we do.”

Chris Powell