Saving over selling: how FCB’s National Depression Initiative joined a very exclusive club with IPA Effectiveness Award shortlisting

Marketing gets a pretty bad rap from the general public for the sophisticated tricks it uses to influence behaviour in the quest for profit. But the Ministry of Health and Health Promotion Agency’s National Depression Initiative campaign by FCB is a prime example of the power of marketing to do good. And the campaign, which covers the period from 2010 to 2013, has just been shortlisted for the coveted IPA Effectiveness Awards, the first time since 1994 that a Kiwi campaign has earned that accolade. 

Brian van den Hurk, FCB’s managing director, knew the IPA Effectiveness awards were very well respected, very robust around numbers and impact, and very hard to win, but he was unaware that just two New Zealand campaigns and two Australian campaigns have won one of these prestigious awards (in New Zealand, Krona Margarine ‘how advertising helped make Krona a brand leader’ won Gold – Grand Prix in 1980 and Anchor Butter ‘until the cows come home’ won a commendation in 1994). 

So just how effective has it been? While depression rates continue to go up, here and around the world (the World Health Organisation has said depression will be the number one medical issue by 2020) and New Zealand’s suicide rate is still a cause for concern, especially among the youth, the campaign has been extremely effective for those who have used it. 

46,500 people have registered to use the online self-help tool The Journal to date. And because it’s online, he says the health outcomes are very measureable.

“We can track the people who go through the programme and their level of depression … And what we know is that people who go through The Journal, their depression rates decrease at a very significant level [90 percent of people who complete it achieve an improvement in their medically recognised PHQ9 score. And, according to some, it’s just as effective as anti-depressants]”.

As Springload’s Josh Barr and Ben Glazewski wrote, useful digital tools tend to stick around and continue to be used, whereas pretty campaigns are often more ephemeral. And, even though it was launched in 2010, van den Hurk says The Journal is still going strong and getting 600 new registrations per month. But he believes the reason this campaign has worked so well is due to integration, something FCB is pretty big on. 

“Mass media draws attention and awareness, which drives people to the site, and when they’re there the people who need more help can get through to a call centre and talk to counsellors who can see how they’re doing in real-time.”

He says John Kirwan, who appeared in a series of ads explaining his battle with depression and took people through the process of using The Journal, has also been instrumental in the campaign’s success. 

“We can’t talk about The Journal without talking about JK. He’s made an amazing contribution. He relates well to New Zealanders and his experience of depression comes through as being very real, so he’s played a huge part. He’s also never taken a dollar for his work and he’s always willing to give his time to do more. He’s a great advocate.” 

He says FCB worked closely with the Ministry of Health, the Health Promotion Agency, clinicians and Dr Simon Hatcher, associate professor of psychiatry at University of Auckland, on the structure and flow of the programme, with coders brought in to build the site. And, in many ways, The Journal was ahead of its time because since then online therapy—and self-diagnosis—has become much more common. He says a lot of countries have looked at running the programme, with Canada trialling it and the UK and Ireland also interested. It has also been officially acknowledged by the World Health Organisation. But health tools like this are country specific, van den Hurk says, and they need to take different contexts and health regulations into account before they can be delpoyed. 

A Harvard researcher who worked with NASA on finding ways to decrease depression in astronauts has also looked at the programme, and van den Hurk says he told them that it was amazing New Zealand could run a scheme like this across the country. He said it just couldn’t happen in the US because the health system is basically run by big pharmaceutical companies and the best they could probably hope for would be to run it across a union.

Van den Hurk says it hasn’t seen anything to this extent in any other market, often because a huge amount of clinical testing is required before tools like this can be used. The National Depression Initiative had a medical reference group working on The Journal and he says clinical testing was mooted, but it decided to spend the money on developing the best possible online therapy system instead. And that decision has been vindicated. 

“In effect, it has been tested in real life because we can see the results,” he says. And while The Journal was originally intended to help those with mild to moderate depression, he says the fact that it also worked just as effectively for those with severe depression is a big endorsement of the programme’s effectiveness.

A lot has changed in the online world since the site launched, so it’s currently it’s working on a big upgrade, with the data on how people have been using the site being employed to make improvements to usability and interaction. 

Van den Hurk says being able to work on things like mental health, alcohol reduction, water safety and domestic violence offers something of a counterpoint to the commercial side of things all agencies need to deal with. And he says this campaign stands out as one of his, and the agency’s, biggest achievements. 

“We’re all amazingly proud of it. It’s humbling working in this sector. And we’ve literally helped save people’s lives.”

  • The awards are held on October 27 and it’s thought all shortlisted campaigns win something on the night. 

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