A legendary addition to SickKids’ VS fundraising campaign

Who: SickKids Foundation, with Cossette for strategy and creative; Scouts Honour for production (directed by Mark Zibert); Nimeopere, Alter Ego, The Vanity for post production; Rajakovic Electric for audio; OMD for media, Citizen Relations for PR.

What: “House of Legends,” the latest—and last—campaign to raise $1.5 billion for a rebuild of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, the largest fundraiser in Canadian health care history. The Foundation expects to reach that historic goal by March.

When & Where: The campaign is live now, on TV and online video (:30, :60 and 1:50), with digital/social, print and out of home.

Why: In 2016, SickKids Foundation broke new ground in non-profit brand marketing when it launched the VS platform with the hugely successful ad/short film “Undeniable.” The underlying idea was to position the hospital much the way marketers would position a high-performance athletics or sports brand. “Undeniable” presented the children being treated at SickKids as warriors battling illness, delivering a rallying cry for others to back their fight.

After five more campaigns and the fundraising goal in sight (it was increased to $1.5 billion), Cossette’s challenge for this year’s campaign was slightly different.

While maintaining the “performance brand” spirit and energy of VS, they had to find a new story to tell for 2022, while also signalling that the fundraising goal is in sight.

“Firstly we asked for an idea that would really connect to what we are raising money for—the new building,” said Kate Torrance, vice-president, brand strategy and communications. “But, we also asked for creative that would act as a bookend of sorts, and signal the end of a chapter without overtly saying it.”

So is VS done? No. The VS platform will live on, but this campaign felt like the final chapter to a specific story—raise a historic amount of money for a rebuild—that Cossette began back in 2016, said Anthony Atkinson, executive creative director at Cossette.

“The job at SickKids is never done,” he said. “I think that was the biggest challenge with this brief was to bring out that VS feeling and idea, do it in a new way—and that’s where this idea of legendary stories comes from—but then also leave the door open for what’s to come.”

“VS is like our Nike Just Do It, and will be around for years to come,” said Torrance.

How (The strategy): The solution was to zoom out. To look back not just at the VS campaign, but at the entire history and accomplishments of the hospital, while still keeping its young patients at the centre of the story. “This was the first time we asked Cossette to shine a light on the whole institution as a community, as well as the patients,” said Torrance. “I found that when you remind people of the history of SickKids, it really resonates emotionally.

“The House of Legends concept was such a simple and powerful way to deliver on that strategy and connect to the need of a new building… SickKids is a house of legends—legendary stuff happens here every single day,” she said.

How (the creative): As has been the case since 2016, it’s an integrated campaign anchored by a big, emotional short film. The 1:50 spot opens on a scene that perfectly captures the emotional ethos of VS: A child patient standing atop a pile of wheelchairs, walkers and crutches, like a rebel ready for a street fight.

But then the narrative quickly jumps back to 1875, and the beginning of the hospital by Elizabeth McMaster: “It started with one nurse and an impossible dream, that every child should be a healthy child,” says the narrator over historical images and tableaus from the hospital’s past. “It grew into a place of legends.”

The spot jumps from the past to the present, with scenes of babies and children being treated today by surgeons, doctors and nurses, some kept alive with advanced technology and medical equipment. “It’s time to finish what we started,” says the narrator. “And build a new hospital worthy of legends.” That’s followed by a quick-cut montage of shots of the many young legends who have been treated at the hospital.

The spot features young patients who appeared in “Undeniable”—including Cole smashing a dialysis machine, and Malachi roaring with a tiger. They are back, six years older, strong and defiant, living proof of SickKids’ legendary work. “We wanted the idea and the film to nod to the beginning of our VS journey, and some of the incredible patients and their stories that we’ve have the privilege of sharing over the last six years,” said Torrance.

There are also personal photos and videos of some of the legends who were treated at SickKids and did not live to see the fundraising efforts completed, including Marlow (above, right) who laid the first brick in the 2017 VS film, “All In.”

“We wanted to celebrate everyone equally, and sharing their story says that we at SickKids see them all as legends, and their stories will always live on to inspire us all,” said Atkinson.

The spot ends by zooming out to show each act of the film—past, present, doctors, patients, families—all together in one shot, all part of the larger story that is SickKids. “Legendary stories call for a legendary hospital,” reads the closing super.

The music: No, it’s not a version of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” as some might think. It’s the original “Pasttime Paradise” by Stevie Wonder.

“The moment Mark Rajakovic presented his rendition of this iconic track, chills went up our spine,” said Atkinson. “‘Tell me who of them will come to be? How many of them are you and me’ spoke to the heart of the idea—that no child chooses to be a legend at SickKids, but they rise up all the same,” he said.

“Engineering emotion is always a great challenge. But when the stars align, and you get that chill up your spine, you know you have something special.”

And we quote: Torrance describes the VS campaign as “the highlight of my advertising career,” and said it was a privilege to tell the inspiring stories of SickKids patients and families.

“And ultimately the creative worked—it moved people, and the generosity we’ve seen from donors is humbling,” she said. “Our agency partners and production partners should also feel very proud. They know the stories we are telling matter, and their time and talent that they so generously give have been a key contributor to us achieving our fundraising goal—the largest in Canadian healthcare history.”

David Brown