A search for authenticity helped unlock a more inclusive – and creatively rich – advertising approach for Virgin Media. Paulina Thompson, Strategy Director at adam&eveDDB, outlines some of the practical lessons learned along the way.

Commercially and societally, the case for inclusive advertising has been made.

However, the answer for how to get there has yet to be found. It’s no wonder then, that ‘authenticity’ is both central to inclusivity, and a word that’s so overused it spurs eye rolls from consumers and creatives alike. It’s easy to talk about – but much harder to achieve. Here are some practical lessons we have learned during this process.

Defining ‘why’ at a brand level

This may sound like an obvious place to start. Yet, as brands, marketers and agencies search for more inclusive approaches, rarely do we stop and ask what we want to achieve, let alone how we’ll get there.

Virgin brands have long championed the business benefits of inclusivity and Virgin Media had actively sought to create more representative advertising. So, as we started work on a new brand platform, which launched in February 2021, Virgin Media wanted to bake in their new Diversity, Equity & Inclusion strategy – “which seeks to create a culture where everyone can be themselves at work, achieve their potential, and ensure our company represents the communities we serve” – into their communications.

Ultimately, there were three key questions to address, albeit we didn’t land on them straight away. Had we started afresh, we’d ask ourselves the following. What is our brand fit? What is the desired societal impact? And, is our way of working set up to achieve this?

Finding our brand fit against the reality of commercial objectives

After years of talking about rational benefits, Virgin Media was losing affinity with consumers, which is key to driving consideration and with that, long-term revenue. We needed a new creative platform that showcased the emotional benefit of lightning-fast broadband, while capturing the nation’s hearts.

Our creative platform, ‘Faster Brings Us Closer’, brings to life the insight that timeless connections, such as love and family bonds, are happening in new ways thanks to the internet. Since inserting activism into product demos rarely works out, we saw that our opportunity to drive belonging and inclusion would be through authentic representation.

We wanted to showcase the lives of a diverse and modern Britain through emotional storytelling: this would achieve our goal of driving brand affinity, not just with the communities we depicted and their allies, but more broadly, as shown in Kantar’s recent audit of inclusive advertising: “empathetic, inclusive stories don’t just appeal to people passionate about diversity – they can appeal to everyone.”

Looking for impact beyond brand metrics

For our ‘Faster Brings Us Closer’ launch campaign, we wanted to start where Virgin Media had equity, so the brand’s long-standing strategic relationship with Scope, the disability equality charity, made disability the right focus.

We consulted with C Talent, Scope and Virgin Media’s ‘Ultraviolet network’, made up of disabled employees, throughout the creative process, sought help from specialist casting agency Purple Goat, and consulted with our lead actor Callum Russell on how to develop his character in the real and virtual worlds. This combined insight defined how we approached representation; a love story set in the world of online gaming, that showed a disabled character without any explicit reference to their disability.

This was our strongest-performing brand campaign to date, with financial returns 38% above target and a double campaign average affinity score – but its reception with the disabled community, gamers and wider public was just as important.

Searching for authenticity led to a new way of working

For our second campaign, we had the bones of an emotive story – a connection between father and daughter deepened through their love of music – and a clear role for product. We now needed to go out into the world to bring it to life.

Our creative team, Edward and Xander, wrote the idea with this in mind. As this story was about family roots, we were drawn to finding a parallel with the roots of Britain’s musical culture. Without expertise in this area, we needed an external partner to work alongside Virgin Media’s Empower network, helping uncover insights and ensuring we brought them to life authentically.

We turned to research agency On Road, who have helped unearth insights for brands like Nike and Apple, and who became our partner in every sense of the word. Together we looked to influential yet often unacknowledged artists and cultures, landing on the Jungle movement. On Road built us a bespoke campaign network, to sit alongside Virgin Media’s, consisting of OG Junglists from the 1990s and their younger counterparts making music today. We learned that introduction to Jungle was a rite of passage, often through family members, which transformed our concept into an authentic story. On Road shared insights, cultural codes and references for the Jungle experience and the music it influenced today, all of which built out our campaign world. Further feedback and development was sought on a near-daily basis from both our On Road and Virgin Media networks, spanning every detail from music and casting, to locations and art department.

Bringing this world to life authentically meant co-creating the campaign with the right talent on and off screen. Our director, Maceo Frost, is the son of a drum and bass producer, which is evident in the details and energy of the film. The lead, Lava La Rue, was selected by Maceo, and their cultural background and musical influences further evolved our character. We worked with Sunny Kapoor from Curation to create two original tracks, giving his team creative freedom to approach the brief authentically. And everyone in our extended cast is a musician in their own right. The result is a universal, moving story about a father and daughter relationship that also celebrates the cross-generational influence of Black Atlantic music and culture on British music today.

Its positive reception in the real world, among the communities we had worked with and depicted, was every bit as rewarding as for our campaign’s previous outing.

The search for greater collaboration continues

Our biggest lessons to date have been to seek out strategic partners who share our vision, stay humble, and relinquish control.

The second campaign had moved on significantly from the original concept. We had found a new way to work as an agency and client team, relinquishing the idea of full creative control so that we could leverage the experience of our partners and talent. As adam&eveDDB works to diversify our own talent pool, partners are vital to making creative work that is authentic and inclusive. Working this way stretches timelines and increases costs, but as Bill Bernbach said, “A principle isn't a principle until it costs you something.”

As we embark on our third ‘Faster Brings Us Closer’ campaign, we want to find ways to involve partners earlier and build in greater representation off screen – so that we can keep telling timeless stories that reflect everyone’s world.