With gleefully silly special builds, pioneering media pranks, a toe in the metaverse and a film campaign about one of the pandemic’s heroes, the delivery driver, ‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers’ is more current than ever The Agency MD Nicola Wardell tells LBB’s Laura Swinton
If you’re not from the UK, it can be hard to comprehend just how embedded opticians brand Specsavers is into the local pop culture. The iconic endline ‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers’ is endlessly applicable to daily life. Accidentally spoon salt instead of sugar into your tea? Should’ve gone to Specsavers. Sit on the cat because it was camouflaged with the sofa? Should’ve gone to Specsavers. Drive all the way to Barnard Castle in County Durham to check your eyesight when you’re a senior political advisor during an unprecedented nationwide lockdown? Ahem. You bet you should’ve gone to Specsavers. And everyone will tell you so.
For both creatives and non-industry jokers, it’s a line that just keeps on giving. No wonder it has lasted so long - ‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers’ turns 20 this year and there’s no sign of it flagging. Over the past two decades, the inhouse creative shop The Agency has created some of the UK’s most beloved ads, featuring short-sighted shepherds, Zumba instructors and vets. They've even seen star turns from the likes of Postman Pat and Basil Fawlty over the years.
But although 2022 marks the 20th anniversary of the line, Specsavers isn’t leaning on that fact at all with its new campaign, 'Should've 2.0'. It gets on with the job in hand; the team is more concerned about making sure it’s as relevant and current as possible rather than looking to past glories, as Nicola Wardell, managing director at The Agency explains.
“I think people do that when they’ve got to remind the public of a campaign. We don’t need to do that, it’s with us all the time. It’s an absolute gift of a line and a campaign. It’s quite intimidating, actually, to inherit it,” says Nicola. “It’s already hugely successful, so I think that rather than harking back to the past because there’s loads to celebrate, it’s been really future facing. How can we make this feel like it belongs to the current culture.”
And the new executions certainly do that. The hero film and online idents focus on a delivery driver, surely one of the heroes of the past two years. Characters cross-pollinate the films, like a small-scale Marvel universe. The main spot sees a delivery driver lug an enormous box up flights of stairs, only to discover, inevitably, he’s got the wrong building - and the ten-second social stings prove that brevity truly is the source of wit.
In an advertising first, at the launch of the campaign, Specsavers cleverly collaborated with mainstream UK broadcasters ITV and Channel 4 to create special adbreak ‘should’ve’ moments. The Channel 4 announcer mistakenly picks up the ITV script and reads out the wrong shows - and her counterpart on ITV does the same with the Channel 4 script.
And moving to OOH, the brand has created a series of special builds around the UK, with posters pasted up the wrong way or pasted over a ladder.
On social media, Specsavers has been getting extra playful over the weekend, fervently denying that the special builds are stunts and paying to promote real peoples' real tweets of 'Should've gone to Specsavers' moments.
The brand has started, at times, doing something almost sacrilegious with its iconic line. As the business has grown more complex, providing more services (such as hearing tests and home visits for the vulnerable) the team has been trying to figure out how to put out more varied messages. As Nicola explains, the public have given the brand its blessing to mess about with the beloved slogan.
“The exploration was really around: how do we deliver many more messages by staying true to what we're famous for? And I think the unlocking of that was some research,” says Nicola, which dropped some unexpected pearls for the team. “One for me was, ‘honestly we know this line so well and we love it. You can start playing around with it now like we'd like to see you play around with it and have some fun’. So that kind of meant we weren't wedded to saying the same thing we've said even if we're going to be faithful to the idea.”
The line isn’t the only thing that the team has been playing around with - Specsavers has also been playing around with the gaming world. “We are metaversing!” jokes Nicola. “We will be showing some of our out of home ads in games targeted at 18-to-25 year olds. So, again this is about broadening out who we’re talking to and how we’re showing up to those audiences."
What certainly hasn’t changed is the warm sense of humour associated with the brand. While the brand can be talking about some serious health conditions, particularly deteriorating eyesight or hearing, it captures the affectionate ribbing that people often use to encourage their loved ones to seek assistance.
“Some of the things we have to talk about, they’re not flippant and they’re not frivolous. But actually, what they [the public] are saying is you can still keep your warmth and humour and your lightness of touch, even when you’re talking to us about some of the more serious things that we talk about. We are a healthcare organisation and some of the messages we’ve got are serious - but because our brand is so known and loved for bringing the light-heartedness into the conversation, we’ve actually got permission to do that.”
Of course, getting that tone right and walking that line is hugely assisted by the fact that The Agency is embedded in the heart of Specsavers. A pioneer of the inhouse movement, The Agency has existed since 1988 and, until recently, was something of an anomaly in the creative agency scene. Having such a set up means that they can move fast. With its many complex executions, the new campaign took just nine months from inception to launch. “We’re quite fleet of foot at Specsavers,” comments Nicola.
The set up internally is quite an unusual one, but it takes a team that really understands the brand to be able to pick out the ideas that will really sing. After all, given ‘should’ve gone to Specsavers’ moments happen fairly frequently actually generating loads of scenarios and ideas isn’t the hard part.
“‘Should’ve’ scripts are actually really interesting to sell in. Because it’s the nuance, isn’t it? It’s the production and the craft that’s really going to make these scripts perfect. The story arc is really simple, you can tell them all in one sentence. Vet mistakes hat for cat. So the art of the sell is really interesting for those of us who are external agency trained,” muses Nicola. “I think the lens we used to narrow it down from the plethora of scripts was: does it feel of the now? Could we go deeper with the scenario and the characters? Having it centred around a tower block, you can get a little bit deeper and show a range of characters and some of the drama going on around us. That felt like it was going to unlock something different, because the shorts are really important and give us that critical digital content. “
Shooting the hero ads was a lot of fun too - director Rick Cantor, says Nicola, understood the tone and values of the brand and nailed its sense of humour. The shoot itself, which took place in a tower block of flats, attracted such interest from the local community that one girl even asked if she could take part in the ad. The team figured, sure, why not? Which all feels very Specsavers.
But while The Agency does a lot of work around creative and content, Nicola is adamant that they work best as a hybrid set up with key strategic partners. For example, with the cheeky Channel 4 and ITV announcer mix up Nicola is full of praise for media agency Manning Gottlieb. “We don’t need a formal meeting, it’s back and forth. It’s, ‘we’ve just had this thought, what do you reckon?’ They started exploring the opportunity with the media partners and that’s how the conversation began. I think that would be really hard to replicate if you had a slightly more formal relationship with your media agency.”
Nicola joined The Agency in early 2020 as managing director - before that she was chief client officer at Havas and, before that, managing partner at Grey London. She now works out of Specsavers headquarters on the island of Guernsey. The business is an important pillar of the community and the agency’s talent is a mixture of incomers from the agency world and local people who have worked in the organisation for years. Nicola is full of praise for the organisation she describes as ‘down-to-earth’, joking that she is ‘totally drinking the green blood’. But that affection goes surprisingly deep - Nicola speaks movingly about seeing staff in a branch of Specsavers chatting to her father and joking around with him. That warmth, she indicates, is more than a ‘tone of voice’.
She notes similarities with the agency world as well as refreshing differences (and no, we’re not talking about the after-work dips in the sea at the nearby beach). “Some of the stuff is so familiar, right? What’s really interesting is that I’m doing, theoretically, a similar job to what I’ve done for the last couple of decades. But I’m on a tiny island in the middle of the sea, and I’ll come out into the carpark and realise, ‘oh my God, I’m here, I’m not in Central London’ because some of the conversations are so similar,” reflects Nicola. “But there’s also a lot that’s different. I think I’ve brought the best of external and I’ve left the rest behind. What I’ve left behind is unnecessary process. Conversations around finance all the time. They just don’t exist. Nobody is targeting me with growth. They’re targeting me to service and support the business. It is really single-minded. Decision making is about what’s right for our store partners and what’s right for our customer. So you’ve only got one lens. It means conversations with your clients, who are also your colleagues. So that’s an interesting dynamic that can be much more straight to the point because you’re both asking: is this the right thing for our client?”
Nicola and her team have been looking increasingly further afield for Specsavers as the brand opens in new markets. While this new campaign will run in the UK, the brand has opened in markets that have quite different sensibilities. Rather than assuming the beloved bit of British pop culture that is the ‘Should’ve Gone to Specsavers’ line will automatically translate, The Agency has been working hard with local marketing teams in Canada, the Nordics and Australia.
“We’ll always have humour, but humour will show up differently in different markets. That’s really important tonally. We’re on a learning curve as an agency with that,” says Nicola. “The other piece is that it’s not ‘Should’ve’. So, for example, launching in a new market, ‘Should’ve’ doesn’t make any sense because you can’t tell people they should have gone to somewhere they’ve never heard of. That’s a bit sad. But the critical thing there was that we still wanted to introduce ourselves to that market with a warmth and a generosity and a bit of a wink in the eye, so if we do transition to ‘Should’ve’ in that market, it feels like the natural thing to do. It’s still going to feel like we are one brand, but it’s about the lifecycle of where the brand is in the market.”
Right now, Specsavers is looking onward and outward. Nicola hints that we may not have seen the last of the Rick Cantor-directed ideas, the team at The Agency are experimenting with new technologies and platforms to soup up the brand’s ecommerce and social content, and of course there are new markets and growing areas such as audiology and care. But if Nicola and the team are resolutely facing the future and not dwelling too much on past glories, it’s still a great time for ad nerds to revisit some of their favourite ‘Should’ve’ campaigns from years past - and ad newbies to see them for the first time.
It’s clear, though, that the team are brimming with new possibilities for ‘Should’ve’. The best test of that is what happens when a ‘should’ve gone to Specsavers’ moment happens, for real, in the offices of The Agency. You might think that after working with the line for 20 years, you’d get a weary groan…
“It’s a cheer!” says Nicola, raising her Specsavers branded mug. “I think we all realise how bloody lucky we are to have ‘should’ve gone to Specsavers’.”