How the nation celebrated the NHS’s big birthday

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Founded in July 1948, thanks to the energy and vision of Labour Health Minister Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan, our wonderful National Health Service has struggled into its old age, sadly stripped of a lot of its dignity by successive governments who perhaps have not shown it the love, care and attention it so obviously deserves. But despite that, the NHS has transformed the health and well-being of the nation and become the envy of the world.

To mark its 70th birthday, and to honour Bevan’s vision that “no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means", the institution decided to have a birthday year with the goal of seeing celebrations peak on 5 July. 

#NHS70 was born.

The Big Idea

The big idea was actually to execute a whole slew of ideas, in a #NHS70 wrapper. I think the NHS comms bigwigs did this for two reasons. Firstly, so that whatever media anyone consumed you couldn’t help but notice that the NHS was celebrating its 70th birthday. The stakeholder group for the NHS is, after all, basically everyone, so that makes sense. And secondly, it was an insurance policy of sorts in that if one idea didn’t hit home there were plenty more where that came from. Throw enough mud against the wall and some of it will stick. Which I guess is also fair enough given these were NHS funds behind this.

NHS England and NHS Improvement worked with a wide array of partners such as other NHS bodies, unions, local government, Royal Colleges, patient groups and charities to create a range of activities that were national, regional and local.

What They Did

The main activation was #NHS70 #LightUpBlue whereby, on the evening of 5 July, over a hundred buildings, historical monuments and high profile sites were lit up blue, the NHS’s colour. The BT Tower, London Eye and the British Library were amongst the London places to be lit. Oop north, the Blackpool Tower, the Liver Building, York Minster and the Baltic Centre followed suit. Leicester Cathedral, Milton Keynes Library, Norwich Castle and even my local Watford Town Hall also did their bit.

In a separate PR foray, NHS Voices was formed, in Band Aid style, to record a version of The Beatles’ classic With A Little Help From My Friends. A host of singers including Nile Rodgers, Seal, Beverley Knight, Alexandra Burke, Rick Astley, Tony Hadley and err, Colleen Nolan, took to the microphone to show their support. A special ITV documentary, presented by Ashley Banjo and Sara Cox, about the making of the song and an attempt to set the world record for the biggest live singalong was screened on July 4th, with the single available to download from, you guessed it, 5 July.

There was also the NHS Big7Tea, whereby people were invited to host a tea party and raise money in the process, with donations going towards a whole host of NHS charities. For good measure, the NHS even got the Royal Mint to launch an NHS 10p coin, complete with an engraved stethoscope, to celebrate the birthday.

And backing the stunt-type activations up, the NHS media team were clearly hard at work punting out a stream of stories, putting forward case studies, getting programming and documentaries commissioned, and generally doing the hard graft to get the press office side of the 70th right.


All the activities were of the been-there, seen-it, done-it, bought-the video-variety. We’ve had lots of charity music videos, projections and lighting stunts, tea parties, new coins, etc, etc, many times before. I don’t think that from a creative point of view, either collectively or individually, that the #NHS70 would make it to Calais, let alone Cannes! But you know what? The ideas all came off and bagged massive amounts of coverage throughout traditional, online and social media, nationally, regionally and locally, with all key messaging coming across loud and clear.

They might not have been the most original activations in the world, but they were all pretty simple. Sometimes, as creatives, we go overboard trying to come up with new stuff when simplicity is often the key. The NHS knew these tactics were tried and tested, so it went with them. There was little risk and plenty of reward. I guess all that was missing was it floating something down the Thames…

Still, Nye would have been looking down proudly.

In Hindsight

Sometimes trying to do too many things at once dilutes the overall impact of a campaign, but I don’t think that this was the case with the #NHS70 body of work. Each activity scored really well in its own right. But if it wasn’t the NHS, would these activities have got the coverage results they did? I think not. There is so much love out there for the NHS. For me, that was the main thing that swayed it from an earned media side perspective. If it wasn’t the NHS I think a lot of these activities would have gone largely unnoticed.

I also question the memorability of the campaign. In years to come will we really remember the NHS’s 70th? Probably not. Perhaps if the NHS had been very single-minded and come up with one brilliant idea, instead of spreading the creativity quite thinly, that might have happened.

In terms of a score, I give this 2 1/2 for creativity, 4 for effort, 4 1/2 for results, 5 out of 5 for the NHS. Which averages out at 4.


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