As far as creative briefs go, it couldn’t have been tougher: Engage people and get them thinking about the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme – the British Army’s bloodiest ever day – 60,000 casualties, including 20,000 dead.
So, not the fluffiest of subjects.
And your target audience? Everyone. From nine to 90. All colours and creeds.
This challenging brief was set by 14-18 Now, a government funded programme that commissions extraordinary art experiences, with the aim of connecting people with the first world war. They commissioned Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller and the National Theatre’s Artistic Director, Rufus Norris, to solve the problem.
What they created is probably the most powerful and talked about art / experiential event of 2016.
The event was a year in the planning and involved more than 2000 people, all sworn to secrecy. Then on 1st July 2016 almost 1400 actors, dressed in authentic WW1 uniforms, appeared across the UK, from Shetland to Plymouth. They represented the 15 regiments that suffered losses on the first day of The Somme, with each actor representing a soldier who died.
The actors had a tight brief. They alternated periods of marching, with standing around in groups. They didn’t speak to one another, or the public. What they did do was hand out small cards, each printed with the details of a soldier who died 100 years’ ago to the day.
The only sound they made, apart from the drum of their boots as they marched, was when they broke into song. The haunting refrain they sang was ‘We’re here because we’re here…’. Sung in the mud and mire of the trenches, it came to epitomise The Tommy – stoic and indefatigable.
It was a huge success, with an overwhelmingly positive public response. #wearehere exceeded 221 million impressions online, with over 97,000 posts on social media. It trended on Twitter for 14 hours, and within 10 days the website had received 110,000 visits. It also received extensive press and TV coverage and was featured on news bulletins throughout the day.
“Hugely moving”, “Profound” and “Humbling” were just some of the words members of the public used to describe the day’s events.
Astonishing results by any standard.
So why then was the event more or less ignored by the communications industry?
#Wearehere resonated with the British public on a truly grand scale – yet it garnered no more than a few cursory column inches in the trade press.
Is this because it didn’t come from within the industry?
Is it even more proof that the marketing industry exists in a self-congratulatory echo chamber of its own making, while the public at large live in the real world, responding to work that engages them, while ignoring that which doesn’t?
For years advertising has been batting-off the claim that most advertising is done for, and with, other advertising people in mind. And as if to confirm this, awards shows continues to sprout like weeds, not one of which has a member of the public on its judging panel.
Denizens of adland, and their journalistic cheerleaders, should cast their gaze a mile or so westward toward that other world which seems to spin in its own orbit – Westminster. A land where politico’s mutterings and shenanigans are routinely referred to as ‘…the Westminster bubble’. A derisory term used to describe goings on that are of no importance whatsoever to anyone other than a tiny group of self-obsessed insiders.
Mad Men, take note.