Marketing the much maligned profession of social work is a tough
brief. Advertisers Ali Bucknall and Adam Collins explain how their
agency’s campaign helped increase applications to
According to research, social workers are seen at best as
“interfering busybodies”, at worst as
“incompetent”. This is a profession that has low status
in the eyes of the public and to which few people would admit to
wanting to join. It is not surprising that many social workers
suffer from low self-esteem and that there are problems persuading
people to join the profession, not to mention too many leaving.
Given all this, for an advertiser there could be few more
challenging, more rewarding briefs on which to work than finding a
way to encourage people into a career in social work. In summer
2001 the Department of Health asked D’Arcy, the advertising
agency responsible for NHS Careers recruitment, to devise a
campaign to increase interest in social work.
Advertising was just one aspect of the recruitment and retention
drive, yet it needed to propel people to immediate action –
we were set a target of 9,000 quality phone enquiries in year one.
The task was not simply to find a way to appeal to those most
likely to apply: social work’s image was so poor that we
needed to create a climate in which people could feel positive
about applying; so that more people understood and valued it as a
career, even if they did not want to do the job themselves.
Comments such as “not if it was the last job on earth”
summed up the scale of the problem.
Our starting point was to talk to social workers –
understand what they did, why they joined and what satisfaction
they derived from their jobs. We knew from our work with NHS
Careers that social workers, like police officers and nurses, cited
a desire to work with people as their primary motivation to join.
However, unlike nurses and police officers, whose focus is on the
consequences of an action or incident, social workers try to
understand why something has happened and help people come to terms
with it. This is what sets social workers apart; a fascination with
understanding why people are the way they are in order to help them
cope with the situations in which they find themselves. We decided
to focus the advertisements on this underlying desire to understand
what makes people tick.
The media budget would not support television advertising so we
focused on radio and national press. We also needed to explain and
educate – which requires a lot of copy – in a way that
would not only encourage people to read the advertisement, but also
make a positive statement about the profession. In other words, it
was a case of not just what we said, but how we said it.
The “talking book” style allowed us to tell a
detailed story in a new and exciting way. The combination of actual
case histories and the highly distinctive graphic style ensured
that these advertisements were different from anything seen before,
which in itself seemed to indicate that social work was different
from what people may have thought previously. In choosing case
histories, we talked to social workers to find stories and
anecdotes to weave into an amalgam story, while “telling it
like it is”.
Five press advertisements have run so far, each showing how a
social worker might help someone better manage his or her life.
Girl, the story of an abusive mother, demonstrates the need to look
for the underlying problems rather than take things at face value;
Autism highlights the complexity of family life;
Frederick shows how the need for help can strike anyone at
any age; Errol shows the small but immensely important
things that a social worker can do for an elderly person; and
Patrick highlights how lateral thinking can enable someone
with schizophrenia to have a better relationship with his
Our latest advertisement will focus on adoption, a minefield for
social workers as it is the area most closely associated with them
in the public’s mind – usually negatively. The
resulting advertisement is, we believe, one of the most powerful
yet, focusing on how an abused child is prepared for adoption to
ensure a good outcome.
The results of the campaign are promising. We know from
qualitative research that perceptions are starting to change for
the better. Our initial response target of 9,000 leads was easily
met – with more than 14,000 phone calls and more than 20,000
single visits to the website during our first campaign last
October. And the best news of all? After five years of decline,
applications to social work courses are up 8.3 per cent compared
with a year ago. All this adds up to a campaign which the Cannes
international advertising festival judged the best for public
sector in 2002, and for which everyone in the profession should
feel very proud.
Ali Bucknall is planning director and Adam Collins
accounts director at advertising agency D’Arcy.