'Purpose-led campaigns don't need shock tactics' - Behind the Campaign with It's a Wonderful Line by The Romans for Virgin Trains

PRWeek takes a close look behind a successful campaign. This week Joe Mackay-Sinclair, founder and executive creative director at The Romans, discusses the PRWeek Award-winning 'It's a Wonderful Line' for Virgin Trains.

'Purpose-led campaigns don't need shock tactics' - Behind the Campaign with It's a Wonderful Line by The Romans for Virgin Trains

What was the campaign, in a nutshell?

Client: "Please can we have a joyous, uplifting Christmas campaign about training it home to see loved ones?"

Romans: "No problem. One happy Christmas campaign coming right up."

Clients: "Can it also be about suicide?"

Romans: "…"

How did the idea come into being?

Debt. Alcohol. Loneliness. Depression. It's unsurprising that, for many people, 'the most wonderful time of year' is utterly dreaded. For train companies, there is understandably a heightened concern for the mental wellbeing of people close to railway lines.

Every tragic railway death has a seismic impact on the drivers, workers and passengers who come into contact with it. To combat this, Virgin Trains has built a longstanding partnership with Rethink Mental Illness, which has trained employees in what to do and say when they think someone may be experiencing difficulties. They told us that a correctly timed intervention, at the station or even at the platform edge, is frequently all that is needed.

And that gave us the springboard for our idea…

The platform edge. What if we used the yellow line on platforms as a unique media channel? After all, the yellow line is the final frontier, the last barrier between a person and an oncoming train. The perfect location for one final intervention: a last plea to turn back, postpone, delay, and rethink.

But what to say there? Our starting point for developing any campaign is always the same: culture. So, we tried to locate where the Venn diagram of entertainment, Christmas, and suicide intersected.

It’s a Wonderful Life, obviously. The UK’s favourite Christmas film. Its central character, George Bailey, is a man whose life hasn’t gone to plan. A man who even contemplates ending his own life just before Christmas, but instead takes solace in the support of his friends, family and community.

And so, 'It’s a Wonderful Line' was born. Starting in Euston and ending 10 stations later in Glasgow, we painstakingly painted the entire film script along the yellow lines of platforms, covering 7.5km in total.

What were the biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?

Frankly, this idea had no right to get made.

There were just so many moving parts and so little time. First, we asked Paramount if we could use the rights to the film for free. They said yes. Then we approached Rethink. They loved it. As did the Samaritans. And Network Rail. And numerous station managers. We found a stencil partner. And a painting partner (one that was able to paint overnight). And dozens of other partners. It was relentless. But, with the help, support and tireless energy of our excellent clients, Mel Diamond, Stef Midmer and Emma Martell, seemingly no barrier was too big to overcome.

How did you measure the results?

With plenty of broadcast and pretty much every national covering the campaign, we'll spare you a gratuitous reach figure. It's what people were saying that's important. Coverage in UniLad and The Observer spoke of the campaign teaching "a valuable lesson about mental health" and "how small acts can keep the most vulnerable away from the edge". Most effusive in its praise was The Guardian’s thought-piece on the campaign, equating it to a salve to help heal a Brexit-broken Britain: "A message of kindness and hope for a nation torn apart." Oh, and Richard Branson tweeted about it. But most importantly by far: we were able to start a conversation about suicide at a time of year when help is needed more than ever.

What are the biggest lessons you took away from the campaign?

1. Purpose-led campaigns don't need to use shock tactics to be effective, even when dealing with subject matter such as suicide. Entertain first.

2. A unique idea opens even seemingly locked doors. Ardent belief in what you're doing is infectious when brokering partnerships and bringing others on the journey with you.

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