There are a lot of questions in ROM’s new gallery campaign

Who: Royal Ontario Museum, with Broken Heart Love Affair for strategy and creative, and Radke Films for production. Saints, Darling, Fort-York and OSO for post-production, and OMD for media.

What: “Experience Dawn of Life,” a new ad campaign for the new “Willner Madge Gallery, Dawn of Life.” It’s the museum’s first new permanent gallery in 10 years, and features almost 1,000 fossils dating back four billion years, helping tell the story of life itself.

When & Where: The campaign runs until mid March and features a 60-second ad running online and in cinema, with some social and print.

Why: The ROM is in the midst of a reinvention of sorts, striving to become less of a destination to view artifacts, and more of an active institution leading cultural conversations and asking important question about topics like, say, the dawn of life.

The new gallery is proof of that transition, said Lori Davison, the ROM’s chief marketing and communications officer. It answers some questions about life, but also asks new ones. The new creative is the first marketing campaign to present the new vision for the museum, which Davison describes as the “more contemporary, outward-facing role that ROM wants to play in the community about igniting dialogue and discussion.”

How: The campaign anchor is a 60-second digital film showing a young boy standing before a four-billion-year-old fossil. As he reaches out to touch it (and yes, visitors can touch the four-billion-year old fossils), an image of the boy appears beside him, whispering a torrent of questions in his ear for almost 30 seconds: How old is life itself, has all this happened before, did we all begin as microbes?

The ad closes with the super “Every answer uncovers more questions,” followed by the museum logo—which is also new, part of a brand identity overhaul by Leo Burnett.

With the film, the agency captures the kinds of moments and experiences ROM wants to provide for the community, said Davison. “[It’s] that transformative experience that you have—and a child in particular—when a new light bulb goes off in your brain, where you think of things differently and feel differently, and new thoughts enter your mind,” she said. “They just did a beautiful job of dramatizing that in a really simple but powerful way.”

The pandemic effect: Like all businesses and public institutions, the ROM has suffered significantly during the pandemic, and was fully closed for 14 of the last 23 months. The Dawn of Life gallery opened in early December, just before everything was shut down as the Omicron wave washed over Ontario. The team from BHLA was able to get into the museum to shoot the spot just days before lockdown restrictions were reintroduced.

While this was a paid campaign for BHLA, the agency was able to stretch the budget with some help from others in the industry eager to support the museum. Radke was the production house for the project, but it was directed by BHLA’s creative team of Jordan Hamer and Spencer Ryan, for example. “We always try to squeeze as much out of our production budgets as possible,” said BHLA chief business officer Bev Hammond. “Also, all of the production and post-production partners went above and beyond, donating their time and working at a highly reduced rate to come together to pull it off. There’s definitely an energy in the air that something interesting is happening at the ROM, and you can feel the creative community coming together to be a part of it.”

“We had such a talented group of people, full of interesting ideas, working together on this project,” added Hamer. “There are so many amazing craftspeople in Toronto, and this was an opportunity to let them run wild.”

And we quote: “Fossils are the ultimate messengers of the past… Having survived the ravages of time, they tell wondrous stories about life’s journey and how the modern world, including us, eventually came to be. In this gallery, we are telling four billion years of this long journey.” — Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron, Dawn of Life’s lead curator.


David Brown