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“I want to make work that sells shitloads of toilet roll,” said no fledgling creative ever in response to the question: “Why advertising?” 

The fact is, most adlanders start out with the noble mission of creating campaigns that make a difference, yet fast-forward ten years and there they are, flogging aloe vera-infused, cushioned 3-ply to the masses with the aid of an adorable Labrador puppy or two.

Advertising for good tends to strike one of two notes – preachy and dull, or shocking for the sake of being shocking – but 23red lands its creative punches more inventively.

23red, though, are an agency that never left that lofty ambition behind – and indeed, have built a thriving business on it. With a client roster spanning the NHS, Department for Transport, Network Rail and Public Health England, their purpose-driven campaigns aim to change people’s behavior for the better, be that donating blood, not driving drunk or boosting health and fitness. 

And in making work that makes a difference, they go about things a bit differently to other agencies, too – an approach epitomised by their motto, 'Do. Feel. Think' – an inversion of the classic advertising response to a brief.

Above: Year of Engineering x Disney, More Heroes Needed


Advertising for good tends to strike one of two notes – preachy and dull, or shocking for the sake of being shocking – but 23red tries to land its creative punches more inventively. That might be through innovative tech (Virtual Blood Donation for the NHS, which combined a custom-developed AR app and a digital billboard); crowdsourcing authentic voices (enlisting teenagers to create a short film, 18, about the dangers of trespassing on railways); or tapping into pop-culture (More Heroes Needed, promoting the Year of Engineering via a quiz to discover your Marvel superhero powers). Or, it might be using existing platforms in a new and surprising way, such as hijacking Tinder to highlight the importance of finding ‘the perfect (organ donor) match’. 

NHS Blood & Transplant – It's a Match!

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Founded in 2000 by CEO Jane Asscher, ECD Sean Kinmont and CSD Philippa Dunning, 23red started life as one of London’s first truly ‘integrated’ agencies. Having worked together for ten years at Tequila, TBWA’s former below-the-line agency, Asscher and Kinmont had grown weary of big shop silos. “Back then, the idea of integration was about ‘matching luggage’,” explains Kinmont, “the [ATL] agency would create a TV ad and we would create a similar version of that and stick it in an envelope, which would be a bit frustrating. We wanted to be able to come up with the idea and then take it all the way through.”

If it’s not Brexit, the headlines are very relevant to what we’ve got going on day in, day out. 

Initially, the agency focused on activations: getting people to do something at the point of purchase, which gave rise to its inverted motto. “The [classic] advertising approach is, spend a huge amount of money on a lot of outdoor or television media, and if you spend enough, you might eventually cut through and get people to think differently and ultimately to feel differently,” says Kinmont. “But a lot of the work we were doing at the time was about that initial interaction – getting people to do something. And you’re much more likely to then get them to feel, and then think, differently.”

Above: 23red founders Jane Asscher and Sean Kinmont


From the get-go, Asscher and Kinmont had shared a desire to do work that made a difference, but it took a fresh pair of eyes – those of former director-general of the IPA, Hamish Pringle, who joined 23red as a non-executive director - to point out that ‘changing behaviour for the better’ was the red thread running through the agency’s best work. 

By focusing their integrated approach on that specific area, they successfully carved out a niche of their own in a crowded market – building a reputation for big, government-backed campaigns around topics as diverse as obesity and health and safety to the environment, electoral registration and organ and blood donation. As Asscher points out, one of the best things about the type of work the agency does is that “if it’s not Brexit, the headlines are very relevant to what we’ve got going on day in, day out.”

At 23red, the creative process looks quite different to that of a regular ad agency.

So how, exactly, do you go about changing someone’s behaviour for the better? A great advertising campaign, no matter how creative, will only get you so far, something Asscher realized back in 1988 while working on the government’s famous Drinking And Driving Wrecks Lives campaign. “We recognized we needed to be at the sharp end, so worked with the Portman Group and a whole load of local organisations and road safety officers. It was an extremely effective piece of work, and I genuinely believe that was because of the integrated approach that was taken to changing behaviour.” 

Change4Life – Train Like A Jedi

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Behavioural science is baked into every project. An OOH blood donation campaign for the NHS, which displayed real-time data about the number of people who’d donated blood locally, the nearest clinic, and the number of available appointments was an example of ‘social norming’ in action. “[People think] if lots of other people are donating, I want to get involved in that too,” explains Kinmont. 

Or ‘chunking’. Not something that happens to your physique after one too many muffins, but breaking down a daunting task into smaller, more achievable segments: for Public Health England, they turned the recommended 60 minutes of activity for kids into ten-minute ‘shake-ups’ with fun themes such as Star Wars’ Train Like a Jedi.

Getting the kids involved was very powerful. We joined up the dots to make it work, but it was successful because it was so communal.

In many cases, the creative process looks quite different to that of a regular ad campaign. Co-creation with the audiences they’re seeking to influence “is a really important part of the process”, says Asscher, citing the success of the Big Little Moments campaign for the National Lottery Community Funds, highlighting the life-enhancing benefits of the home learning environment. 

Another example is 18, their short film for Network Rail, which dramatises what befalls a group of friends when one of them is electrocuted whilst trespassing on the railway. The scriptwriting was crowdsourced from schools along the track - the target audience of ‘trackside neighbours’ - and with four million YouTube views at last count, the strategy has certainly paid off. “Getting the kids involved was very powerful. We joined up the dots to make it work, but it was successful because it was so communal,” agrees Kinmont.

Network Rail – 18

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As well as keeping up to date with the latest research on behaviour change, cutting-edge tech is critically important for much of 23red’s work and the agency maintains an innovation fund as well as an internal lab to devote to projects such as the aforementioned Virtual Blood Donation campaign, which aimed to increase BAME donor numbers. 

23red created an augmented reality app that connected to outdoor screens, featuring an empty blood bag and a sick patient. After downloading the app, members of the public used their phones to scan a sticker on their arm, which overlaid an AR needle, plaster and tube from which their virtual ‘blood’ flowed into the bag on the poster. As the bag filled up, the patient visibly got better, demonstrating the impact of a donation. “As well as [developing] augmented reality, we had to put that augmentation together with the interaction with the screen, which was really complicated,” says Kinmont.

In a woke world, where consumers are increasingly wary of ‘goodwashing’, it’s no surprise commercial brands have come knocking.

Virtual Blood Donation came to life on the big screen after winning a competition run by outdoor advertising services company, Ocean Outdoor, offering £100,000 worth of media. Another of the agency’s winning ideas, this time for environmental charity City to Sea, links the Refill app – which identifies locations where you can fill up your reusable water bottle – to a fish on a digital poster, which swims away happily as you interact with the water fountain.

Now approaching its second decade, the agency is continuing to evolve its offering beyond the big government campaigns and into other sectors, such as charity. “It’s very interesting to see how the charity marketplace is evolving too,” says Asscher. “There’s a real understanding that just raising money for research is no longer enough in order to engage their audiences, so they’re moving into an engagement and prevention space.” 

NHS Blood & Transplant – Virtual Blood Donation

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And then, of course, there’s helping the private sector clients with their social, environmental, ecological and political positioning in a woke world, where ‘brand purpose’ no longer just a buzzword, and consumers are increasingly wary of ‘goodwashing’. It’s no surprise commercial brands have come knocking, keen to avail themselves of 23red’s expertise in purpose-driven marketing.

While naming no names, Asscher reveals that 23red has just taken on two new private sector clients – one in the FMCG space and one in the retail space. “They’re brands who have recognized that they have that core element to their brand’s DNA, and that it’s really important to shine a light on that.”

“We’ve been banging the drum for a while about [this being] the first generation of consumers growing up who will make purchasing decisions based on how a brand behaves towards their consumers, their customers, their supply chain,” Asscher continues, “and it feels like now the brands are waking up to that. It is mainstream, it is no longer enough to look at it as a CSR piece of activity that happens ‘over there’.”

Indeed, reckons Kinmont, the label “corporate social responsibility” has itself been part of the problem. “CSR implies a little side project that corporate has done in the background. A lot of people have looked at that and, quite rightly, thought, well, that’s just ‘goodwashing’. Now, brands have to do things in an honest and real way, more naturally. So it’s an exciting space to be in.”  

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