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Addressing air pollution and driving change with AMV BBDO - #BehindTheIdea

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Air pollution is deadly. However, as dangerous and fatal as its effects may be, people still perceive them as distant and something that doesn't affect their daily lives.

That can only lead to more problems in the near future, and it is for that reason that the Central Office of Public Interest partnered with AMV BBDO to craft addresspollution, a campaign aiming to drive change in the UK by raising awareness of all the most deadly consequences of air pollution. The campaign had a huge success back in March, leading to endorsement from the Secretary for Health and a number of other great results listed further below.

Today we are getting Behind the Idea to learn about the core of such an important campaign by the team at AMV BBDO. This piece features answers by Art Director Scott Kelly, Copywriter Ben Polkinghorne, Board Account Director Rachel Dymond and Account Manager Raashi Agarwal.

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What was the brief?

Air pollution is one of the most deadly but ignored killers in the UK.

The Central Office of Public Interest wanted to make people open their eyes to air pollution, drive it up the public agenda and convince the government to speed up an important policy change.

Our task was clear, though the issues surrounding it were complex.

1.      Get people to open their eyes to the dangers of air pollution by making it feel more ‘real’ to them
2.      Get local councils to make on the ground changes that would enable individuals to make more sustainable choices
3.      Get the government to bring forward the single most important policy change for air pollution: to ban the sales of petrol and diesel cars before 2040.

How did the initial pitch/brainstorming phase go?

Air pollution is fundamentally hard to deal with on an individual level, so people ignore it. This posed an issue for us, because in communicating about air pollution we ran the risk of getting people’s backs up. And it posed an issue for the people ignoring it, because though it feels distant, its effects are immediate and local.

Despite the overwhelming volume of data that pointed to an air pollution emergency in the capital, people were still not moved to action. So we needed to make this an issue that people would take personally. We asked ourselves ‘how do we make Londoners care?’ Or, to put it another way, what do they care about?

The real eureka moment arrived when the lease came up on a member of the team’s flat. The flat in question was above a busy road, and the price had really started to grate when they found out how severe the air pollution was. This made us ask ourselves: why are Londoners everywhere paying through the nose to wreck their lungs? 

London is a city obsessed with property, with a £1.7 trillion residential property market. So, we decided to make Londoners take air pollution seriously by linking the health impacts to something they care and talk about a lot – property prices.   The average London home is now worth over 500k, and is most Londoners biggest asset by a huge distance - any threat to the financial value attached to it is an emotive and highly engaging topic. Front page news, in fact.

So, we took a big risk, that no-one in the category had dared before: we shifted from focusing purely on the context of health, and broadened to the context of wealth.

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Tell us more about the concept. How did it come to life, and why was it the right choice?

Working with then King’s College London (now Imperial College London), we used raw data to build a 5 tier air pollution rating system which linked the levels of deadly pollutant nitrogen dioxide at any London address to associated health and financial costs.

To get our rating system out there, we didn’t just create an ad campaign, we built a website; a brand new way for anyone to find out the ugly truth of air pollution at their home and demand government action.

And, to ensure the public knew about our website, we infiltrated London’s property market by ruthlessly targeting the most expensive residential areas with the highest pollution ratings and even enlisting the help of estate agents.

Air Pollution campaigns of the past tend to expose the health effects and do it via a PR stunt. The issue with this is it very quickly falls off the agenda for most people. By attaching air pollution to people’s single biggest financial and emotional investment, the home, we knew the issue of air pollution would no longer remain invisible. 

The London launch made such a splash, that we received a grant by a major environmental body to take the rating system nationwide. This time we included two additional pollutants and had a completely updated data set. Our big launch last month now means that everyone in the UK can see what they are breathing on their doorstep.  

What was the production process like? What was the biggest challenge?

The rating system, approved by experts at the Environmental Research Group at Imperial College London, needed to be simple. It combines information design, brand identity and graphic design to make an invisible killer visible.

The process was iterative, and fairly complex. We’re dealing with concentrations of pollutants measured in micrograms per cubic metre. On top of that, for the nationwide launch, there was three different pollutants and they’re all invisible. We had to communicate complicated information quickly and efficiently, while nodding to the toxicity.

Air pollution exists on a microscopic scale but its effect on lungs, the brain, heart and even the womb is profound. We needed a visceral way of expressing the different levels of air pollution in more than a coloured banded system. Spikes exist in nature as a warning sign, a sign of danger. They felt right for this. 

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What is one funny or notable thing that happened during the production of the campaign?

A notable thing that happened during the campaign was the ruling on Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death. Ella was a small girl who was repeatedly hospitalised for severe asthma before sadly dying of a particularly bad attack. The landmark hearing found that her death was caused in part by the excessive levels of air pollution at her home address. Her mother had previously said in the media that if she had known the air pollution on her doorstep she would have moved.

What’s the main message of the campaign and why does it matter?

Air pollution affects everyone. It is a dangerous, invisible killer. Everyone has a right to know what they’re breathing. And with the public finally able to see this invisible problem, the government will need to swiftly act to bring air pollution levels down.

What is one unique aspect of the campaign?

Data was harnessed to its full potential. The complex air pollution scientific data which goes over the head of most people was made relevant by attaching it to an object to great financial and emotional importance; the home. 

Another unique aspect was the funds to get the addresspollution.org pilot live were originally raised through a successful crowdfunder campaign, making this a truly people powered campaign.

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How long did it take from inception to delivery?

Originally launched in 2019 as a London pilot, addresspollution.org received nearly one million visits at launch. Off the back of that success, funding was secured to commission 1.5 billion new data points from university Imperial College London. All in all, from London Pilot to Nationwide Launch it was roughly two years. 

What do you hope it achieves for the brand?

The National Association of Estate Agents have said agents have a legal obligation to disclose the information on addresspollution.org. And following this campaign, the National Trading Standards said estate and letting agents could be prosecuted for giving false information about air quality. Zoopla have made the Air Quality rating system available as a tool on their website. And, another property portal, Search Smartly, now use our API to produce Air Quality Ratings for every listing.

Local councils have adopted the anti-pollution measures homeowners petitioned through addresspollution.org. For example: 

  • School Streets proposals were rolled out and bike hangers were installed
  • Westminster set a 20mph limit to boost safety and air quality
  • Kingston Council put in electric car charging points

Most importantly, we achieved the national policy change we lobbied for: to bring forward the ban on petrol and diesel cars from 2040.

  • The day we launched it, the Secretary for Health endorsed our initiative. 
  • A week later, the Secretary for Transport launched a review into our single ask.
  • A short time after that, the government only went and did it. 

Credit list for the campaign?

Client: Central Office of Public Interest
Campaign: addresspollution.org
Client name: Humphrey Milles (Founder)

Agency: AMV BBDO
Chief Creative Officer: Alex Grieve
ECDs: Nicholas Hulley, Nadja Lossgott
Creative Directors: Toby Allen, Jim Hilson
Art Director: Scott Kelly
Copywriter: Ben Polkinghorne
Design Director: Mario Kerkstra
Account Management: Rachel Dymond, Raashi Agarwal
Strategy: Emma Stafford, Talitha Turbin
Geospatial Technologist / Data Analyst: Justin Saunders
Data Analyst: Seth Shenbanjo
Creative Production Partner: Ian Whittle
Motion & Digital Designer: Thomas Harris, Bashak Yenier
Production company: HYD
Data mapping: Global MapAid
Post-production company: The Mill
PR agency: One Green Bean
Media production: Grand Visual
Media planning: Talon Outdoor

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