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60 seconds. That’s the length of time the Office for National Statistics (ONS) had to capture a group portrait of the UK, ensuring it was representative of all ages, genders, ethnicities, sexualities, abilities, social classes, professions and geographies, and reflective of everything the census stands for. It also had to set the right tone.

Every 10 years, the ONS embarks on the prodigious task of counting and collating the length and breadth of England and Wales – gathering critical information that helps inform local decision-making on everything from transport links to community centres, hospitals to schools.  

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This year, things are a little different. Firstly this is a digital-first census, with the ONS hoping for at least 75% of the responses to be done online. It is also the first time the census will collect information on gender identity, in addition to the existing question on sex - a decision that has been widely welcomed by members of the trans community. 

“We were really mindful of the challenges around delivering a census in England and Wales that was optimistic and positive and would engage people,” explains Karen Campbell-White, deputy director of communications, ONS.   

Mandatory by law, Campbell-White explains that around 70% of the population complete the census with minimum intervention. Which leaves 30% of people with barriers to completion. “It may be that English isn't their first language or they are students and this is the first time they are completing it or that they are homeless. There are all sorts of reasons why people might struggle,” she explains. Some people need convincing to give away their personal information. “We’re absolutely hot on data security and privacy,” insists Campbell-White. “We treat that incredibly carefully.”  

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After conducting research to understand the various barriers to completion, and how to motivate people to fill out the census, ONS got to work with M&C Saatchi to conceive of how the ad might look.

“We really wanted the creative campaign to be the most inclusive ever, because of this challenge around overcoming barriers. But we also wanted it to be optimistic as well and positive," Campbell-White claims. "It would have been very easy to deliver a campaign that felt worthy, but didn't reach people's hearts.” 

Considering the census impacts communities, Ben Golik, chief creative officer at M&C Saatchi recalls how they contemplated on the past year, and how it has changed the way people interact with their local community.

“One of the things we’ve all learned in lockdown is the importance of our local area,” he says. “We now spend more time in it and have come to appreciate all the things that have been our saviour throughout lockdown, like a walk in the local park.”  

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Together with Knucklehead production company, casting agents and local councils, the team started having conversations with people across England and Wales, to ensure they reached the right breadth and scale. 

Golik explains that perfecting the tone of the campaign was a real challenge for the team. Filmed in November, to be aired in March, they had to ensure it portrayed the right message. “We had to think, what will life be like in March? No one knows,” he shares. “I think we made a pretty good guess of it. But you don’t want to be over the top, so that it was out of step with the national mood.  

“You don’t want people to be watching it, thinking god they’re a bit happy-clappy. The tone has been the biggest tightrope. There was no plan to make tinkly piano music.”  

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It also had to contain the right amount of pandemic references. “The census has to look like now, because you want people to identify with it. But at the same time, the census takes a 10-year view, taking in a longer-term view of the services,” Golik details. 

An odd side-effect of the pandemic is that it is now excruciating to watch scenes where people are not socially distanced from each other. “If you saw an ad now, with everyone running around hugging each other, it wouldn't resonate,” he explains. And so, everyone in the ad is filmed at a distance and within their bubbles. There is a nod to Covid-19, with the midwife and the doctor who are featured in full PPE and masks, but apart from that, the pandemic is only noticeable in the ad's claim of adherence to guidelines. 

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Authenticity was also critical to getting the tone right, and in many ways, Covid-19 helped to make this a reality, as the cast consisted of real families, households and bubbles to ensure the spot was filmed safely.

“There’s a wonderful scene of a midwife. We really wanted to have a newborn baby to represent, as this is all about life," Golik recalls, explaining that in the casting process, they were looking to find a pregnant woman who would give birth within the shooting window. But they started thinking about the restrictions.

”Wonderfully the midwife is actually the sister of the mum. So even though that's not the point of the story on screen, it did mean that we were able to film a family bubble, with a midwife and a mother.” 

The ability to capture real-life relationships and dynamics ensured the spot centres the people it champions. Rather than being a checklist of advertising stereotypes, it reflects the very people it hopes to capture at the moment we are at - who we are, and how we live now.

“Our two mum family in Brighton, they’re not waving pride flags," Golik notes. "They’re just being two mums with their kids. There’s a realness to that representation.” 

You can watch the full 'It's About Us' here: