At the Advertising & Design Club of Canada's Directions awards last week, one acceptance speech was unlike all the others—indeed, unlike anything heard at an award show before.
When the design director of Mindworks took the stage at Toronto's Koerner Hall on Thursday to receive a Gold award, his remarks grew very personal, very fast.
"This was a real labor of love, and it actually came at a really difficult time in my life," he began. "My father passed away recently, and it's been a tough couple of months trying to deal with that. And it's put a lot of things into perspective for me. It's made me realize that I haven't seen my family as much as I should. I haven't seen a lot of people as much as I should—and I'm sure a lot of you out there understand that feeling."
An aura of rapt attention and awkward silence enveloped the crowd of 900 industry professionals. And you can watch what happened next in this two-minute clip:
"The anxiety and the depression, it creeps up on you," he said. "And after a while you're not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel anymore. You start to feel like you're not going to be yourself ever again, but you can't remember what that felt like in the first place. So, it doesn't really matter. Pretty soon, nothing matters."
He concluded, "I should've done it sooner, because how long can you go on pretending everything's OK? I called nabs."
At that point, the acronym and toll-free number of the National Advertising Benevolent Society, which offers guidance and support services to marketing and media professionals, flashed on a screen above the podium.
Mindworks isn't an actual company, and that man was an actor named Austin Strugnell, hired by creative agency Cossette to spread the word about nabs to a captive audience of advertising and media staffers, some of whom are presumably navigating life/work stress for real. The ADCC was, of course, party to the deception.
Nellie Kim, executive creative director at LG2, who was in attendance, praised the masquerade as "a spot-on stunt that fully engaged the audience—totally unexpected and surprising." Kim notes that owing to confidentiality issues, nabs "can't highlight any of the success stories or challenges that real people have gone through in our industry," making the ADCC performance especially valuable for building name recognition.
Tom Megginson, an expert on social-issues marketing and creative director at Canadian shop Acart Communications, who was not at the show, says it was "really refreshing to see the middle-aged 'adman' character tell a room full of young up-and-comers that [juggling workaholism and family issues] ... is damaging to mental and physical health. They seemed to actually absorb the message, as it was presented to them in the very place where they compete for bragging rights amongst their own peers."
He adds: "The real question will be, when they're back at work, will they remember it? nabs has their attention for a moment, and ours as we watch the stunt, but when work gets crazy again, will they remember to practice self-care, to look out for each other, and where to call for help? I hope nabs follows up regularly with them."
Cossette global chief creative officer Peter Ignazi discussed the stunt with Muse; our conversation was condensed and edited:
Muse: How'd you choose this particular actor?
Peter Ignazi: We developed the script for the awards acceptance speech based on real feedback and experiences of professionals who have used nabs services. We considered having a "real" person do the speech [perhaps someone who used the service and could speak from experience], but ultimately decided that was a lot to ask of one individual. We decided that using an actor would allow us to tell a more universal story and connect more meaningfully with the audience, while keeping the focus on nabs rather than the individual. We hired an actor following a small casting search. We needed someone with the chops to pull off the performance, but also someone who wouldn't be recognized from a spot by any of the people at the show—which is a challenge when you are dealing with an audience of advertising professionals!
Where'd the idea come from in the first place?
Once we determined that award shows would be the most effective platform for reaching our audience, our creative team came up with the idea of the acceptance speech. We worked with the organizers at the ADCC, which is also a nonprofit, to create a fake category as a platform for our message.
Why a live stunt, and why that particular venue?
nabs needs to find provocative and impactful ways of reaching its target audience without a huge investment. We opted to execute this stunt at the ADCC awards because it is well attended by industry professionals of all levels. Every agency in Canada is represented in the audience, and our hope was that the stunt would provoke conversations attendees would take back to their teams. From what we have heard from attendees, we definitely reached that objective.
What do you feel you accomplished?
The key was raising awareness of nabs and its services for professionals at all stages of their career. By carving out a provocative presence at a major award show, we were able to get the conversation started and encourage people in the industry to talk about the important issue of mental health, and how nabs can help.
Were you worried about how this would be received by the audience? Was it risky at all?
It was definitely a risk. We know some people were uncomfortable, and we expected that. It's a tough subject, and the stunt was definitely raw and unexpected. Overall, we had amazingly positive feedback from those in attendance who thought it was a bold move from nabs and a great way to raise awareness and get people talking.