James Hurman examines the 2023 WARC Awards for Effectiveness Channel Pioneer Grand Prix for Partners Life, ‘The Last Performance’ by Special Auckland, in the fourth instalment of his EFF BOMB series.

Monday the 19th of June this year was a good day for Special, the Auckland-born global network of agencies. A month earlier, their New Zealand operation was named Global Creative Agency of the Year by the UK’s Campaign. Then upon arrival in Cannes, they picked up the Grand Prix at the Health & Wellness Lions for the creativity of their campaign ‘The Last Performance’ for life insurer Partners Life. The same campaign also won Grand Prix in the Channel Pioneer category of the WARC Awards for Effectiveness. On the same day.

It's super hard to pull off what my Aussie mate Brent Smart calls ‘Leffies’ – campaigns that win both Lions for creativity and also effectiveness awards. With all my talk about creativity being so effective, pointing to the fact that there are so few campaigns that win both types of award might seem like my shooting for an own goal, but hear me out.

Your chances of winning an effectiveness award are vanishingly small. Of the millions of campaigns made around the world each year, a few hundred end up with effectiveness metal. That’s not to say that advertising generally isn’t effective – but to prove the effectiveness of a campaign convincingly enough to persuade sceptical award juries requires a level of time, money, data and cleverness that simply isn’t available in the vast majority of cases.

So the percentage of advertising that wins effectiveness awards is something like 0.0001%.

It’s also very difficult to win creative awards. Even though there are so bloody many of them, the IPA once calculated that about 1 in every 7,000 campaigns wins one.

But then if we look at the few hundred creatively awarded campaigns each year, we find many of them winning effectiveness awards. There’s an update coming this year, but in 2021, WARC found that 18% of creatively awarded ideas between 2015 and 2019 were subsequently awarded for effectiveness.

Which is 180,000 times more than 0.001%.

It’s extremely rare to win either creative or effectiveness awards. Which makes it extremely difficult to do both with the same campaign. But you’re about 180,000 times more likely to do so if that campaign is highly creative.

Anyway, back to Special and their same-day Leffie.

So far in this column I’ve picked on big global brands with big budgets building their brands over big periods of time.

In this case, it’s the opposite. Partners Life is a 12-year-old insurance company that only operates in tiny New Zealand and has annual revenues of under $500M Kiwi pesos. By global standards it’s a little wee startup, and its advertising budgets and timeframes follow suit.

So Special found themselves with a small client, a small budget, a small timeframe, and a difficult challenge.

You see, in New Zealand we’re not overly fond of life insurance. About 29% of us have any, which is well below the OECD average. Awareness of the Partners Life brand sat stubbornly at around 23%, meaning that under a quarter of New Zealanders were aware of the brand in a category that they’re largely uninterested in anyway. And in that category, independent research had shown that advertising is the weakest motivational trigger (which may well be something to do with life insurance advertising generally being as creative as the average morning shit.)

However, one thing New Zealand is about the best in the world at is taking not much and turning it into quite a lot. The kiwi physicist Ernest Rutherford, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry and then went on to become the first person to split the atom, is famous for saying “We haven't got the money, so we'll have to think”. He was a creative guy. If he’d dedicated his life to the much nobler pursuit of making advertising, we might not be worrying about Putin’s temper quite so much now. But I digress.

Special began by making the fabulous and contrarian observation that their client wasn’t actually selling life insurance – they were selling death insurance. While the category waxes on about how life insurance enables the peace of mind to really embrace life (usually demonstrated by an aging couple walking on a beach, smiling as if they’re unaware that they’ll be completely ignored by everyone watching the resulting ad), Special said ‘get real’.

Leaning into death might sound like a tough row to hoe, but they reasoned that, actually, we quite like a bit of death. Just like most people, kiwis love true crime podcasts and murder mysteries. Stories where death is central.

So they went to where the death was – New Zealand’s most popular murder mystery TV show, The Brokenwood Mysteries. In every episode, someone dies, and ends up in a morgue.

And at the end of all six of the season’s episodes, before the credits rolled, Special brought those murdered characters back from the dead for one ‘last performance’ using the same actors, same director, same crew, and same sets in the show. As the dead victims lay there on their stainless steel death trays, they opened their eyes, lamented their lack of life insurance, and reminded New Zealand that life isn’t scripted so it’s best to ‘Plan ahead and get life right’.

It was an ad, cleverly hidden inside a show. Product placement for an intangible service. Done in a death-defyingly cool way.

When it ran, the percentage of New Zealanders who agreed ‘it’s important to have life insurance’ grew from 58% to 70%. Brand awareness of Partners Life grew from 23% to 29%. Consideration grew from 21% to 26%. And life insurance enquiries increased by 70%. All on a total budget of under $500K.

When we don’t have big budgets, we tend to lean into a series of spurious beliefs about how smaller budgets are most effectively spent. We tighten up the channel mix – believing that it’s better to ‘concentrate’ the budget into a single media. We choose what we perceive to be ‘cost effective digital media’ rather than broader-reach above-the-line. We lay out the facts in rational ways rather than attempting to engage the emotions. And we choose a less creative approach, because we only have one shot, and creativity is risky, right?*

On the Master of Advertising Effectiveness, I share the data around low-budget campaign effectiveness. It shows all of those preconceptions as fallacious, logical though they may seem. Small budget campaigns are more effective when they use a broader media mix. In Partners Life’s case they used social media, online video, PR and a microsite to extend the reach and engagement around the TV show partnership. Small budget campaigns are more effective when they lead with above-the-line, not cheap digital. The Last Performance got all the benefits of above-the-line, but in a much more innovative way than simply buying TV spots. Small budget campaigns are more effective when they’re emotionally driven. And this was all about humour, surprise, and an emotional argument for life insurance as opposed to product information that no one was willing to care about. And lastly, small budget campaigns are vastly more effective when they’re highly creative – well over twice as effective in our Creative Commitment data. And this campaign, as evidenced by the many top-tier creative awards it’s won, was brilliantly creative.

It's a superb example of the power of great strategy thinking, innovative media thinking, and genius creative thinking all working together to deliver a campaign that built the brand and also built the category, without the benefit of a great big budget.

As we say in New Zealand, ka pai Special.

*No it isn’t. The data is very clear that when we take an uncreative approach, we’re much more likely to see below-average brand and commercial results, at any budget level.

Read the full effectiveness paper on WARC here.

Learn about the Master of Advertising Effectiveness here.

About Eff Bomb

Eff Bomb is a WARC column about the world’s most effective advertising campaigns. Each issue, James Hurman takes apart a recent effectiveness award winner and shows how it put the principles of effectiveness together to create significant brand and business growth.