Why public sector comms, once renowned for being creatively boring, may be about to change

Old Healthcare Campaigns

Back when I first got into advertising, the healthcare category was seen as a creative graveyard.

A place where older writers and art directors, no longer thought of as edgy or hip enough for a top agency’s creative department, were put out to graze.

Agencies annexed these departments so the unknowing onlooker would not confuse the output with that of the main agency. They even have their own awards.

The work bore no relation to conventional ‘modern’ advertising: it was dry, serious, visually unappealing. 

This was what the clients wanted, apparently.

It seemed that people with ailments as different as constipation and angina put on a different head when shopping for medicines than they did for anything else.

New Healthcare Campaigns

Then along came Andrew Spurgeon at ad agency Langland, and within 10 years everything changed.

I met him once: I was freelancing at the time, and on the advice of a mutual friend, sent him an email. He invited me over to its offices in Windsor and over the course of the following hour, shared with me his vision for the agency, and indeed the sector.

The conversation stayed with me for two reasons. 

One, because what he said made perfect sense and two, it preceded a period where Langland went on to dominate the healthcare awards categories, and changed the landscape of healthcare advertising, perhaps permanently.

The Big Idea

So what was Andrew Spurgeon’s big idea?

Treat healthcare advertising as you would any other.

He knew healthcare clients were ready to accept big ideas, powerful visuals and dynamic headlines. 

Basically, all the things that made advertising compelling.

He wasn’t the first person to think this way, it was about timing. 

Public Sector Wakes Up

I see a similar pattern now emerging in local government and public sector organisations.

The public sector has always been divided into two. On one hand you have the big charities and government departments that use the large agencies to produce award-winning behavioural change campaigns – and then you have everyone else.

The ‘everyone else’ is where most of the communications teams work: local government, smaller charities, social care organisations and professional bodies.

The narrative that these organisations need to get across can be every bit as compelling as a big agency charity campaign. 

Local government is no longer just about rubbish collections and council tax bills. 

They need to have a policy on a range of social issues that affect all our communities: Loneliness and isolation; air quality and climate change; waste and recycling; homelessness; mental health; diversity. The list goes on.

Heads of communications across the sector are waking up to the fact that they can get a bigger bang for their buck by creating strategies for powerful creative messages, rather than just issuing press releases and getting the comms ‘out the door’.

Local Authority News is Current

It’s an area close to our hearts at Westco and we have a vested interest, as most of our biggest clients are in local government. 

But we are not alone.

The zeitgeist of social equality has pushed the issues our clients deal with everyday into the spotlight.

When it comes to organisations that have an affect on people’s lives and behaviours, local authorities come close to the top of the list. 

So why wouldn’t a modern agency that cares about positive behaviour communications want to be involved?

I’m not saying I’m the next Andrew Spurgeon, or that Westco will dominate public sector awards for the next 10 years, but in a few years, don’t be surprised if you’re walking down the Rue d'Antibes during Cannes week, and you bump into your local councillors.