CALM's Simon Gunning: 'Social media is this generation's smoking'

The charity's chief executive discusses how the creative industries can power a cultural shift in the conversation about mental well-being.

Change feels glacial when you are in the midst of pushing for it; yet often the magnitude of cultural shifts are only visible in retrospect. As the chief executive of Campaign Against Living Miserably, Simon Gunning is at the forefront of a cultural shift in how brands and individuals talk about their mental well-being. The charity is spearheading an awareness drive about male suicide, the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.

It's a critical time for the charity, as research suggests that social media has been the architect of a distinct crisis in self-worth among young men. "It took us generations to get to grips with the consequences of smoking. We need to think very carefully about the impact of social media on our well-being," Gunning says.

Yet Gunning believes that, just like attitudes to smoking have been revolutionised, there is currently a similar shift in attitudes and awareness of mental well-being. "I was showing my son an Amy Winehouse gig on YouTube recently and it is simply astounding to see people smoking. It is quite easy to forget that was very recently," he says. "Likewise, just two years ago, there was a sense of silence and shame when it comes to talking about mental health."

Under pressure

With a background in advertising and marketing (he was a partner at Bartle Bogle Hegarty and has worked at brands including Bacardi), Gunning believes there is a crucial role for agencies to play in breaking the silence surrounding mental well-being – not just for consumers but within their own businesses.  

"We look at high-stress situations as happening in jobs like being a firefighter, and it's accepted that it is where the real stress lies. But I have seen people hammered by stress in advertising, when you believe that you will live and die by your ideas," he explains.

According to Gunning, the ad industry needs to bring new principles to the centre: "It is vital to understand that people perform at their best when cultures are firmly rooted in kindness."

He believes that society has reached a tipping point when it comes to discussing mental health and the creative industries have been key to ensure that shift happens – both in its creative output and internal initiatives and leadership. "You look at great leaders like Xav Rees at Havas and Mat Goff at Adam & Eve/DDB, and what they do is step outside the constraints of the job to make change happen.

"It is a hand-brake change in how you view the world. You don’t switch it on and off. In the media world, it can be really tough when you aren’t hitting dividends, but the train has left the station and you can’t push against this cultural shift – it would be like smoking in a bar in 2018."

Gunning says that staff retention is a key challenge for the ad industry. This means making the effort to open the dialogue surrounding mental health should be a conscious business effort. Kindness is a bigger business priority than simply chasing headlines in the press. 

The place beyond the cynicism

CALM has successfully harnessed the power of creativity to shift the dial on the conversation surrounding mental well-being notably with the high-profile and much-awarded "Project 84" campaign. The activity took on the shocking statistic that 84 men in the UK take their own lives every week by placing 84 life-sized sculptures on the top of The London Studios in London. The campaign prompted 220,000 people to sign a petition asking for a government department to be given the specific duty of suicide prevention. The activity, which was created by Adam & Eve/DDB, cleaned up at Cannes.

Yet it is not just about agencies taking on pro-bono work to hoover up awards. According to Gunning, there is a rational business model about wanting to make the world a better place. "If you look at Harry’s grooming [which sets aside a percentage of its sales and much of its time to charitable organisations], it doesn’t have the deep pockets of Dollar Shave Club, but its purpose is woven deeply into what they are. When you remove the cynicism, you just need to trust the truth, because people will like you more for it."

CALM has an established model of working with brands – they provide funding, agencies provide creative work on a pro-bono basis and media partners provide platforms to amplify the messaging. "We don’t just take the money, we need to provide a service," Gunning explains. "It is an active process and it's not something you can imbibe through PowerPoint. You can’t appropriate purpose; we will only work with people who are genuinely engaged." 

It is an organisation mission that is about more than just chasing awards, and agencies and media owners that have worked with CALM feel aligned with a cause that is bigger than their bottom line or trophy cabinets. "Younger people in agencies want a different cultural perspective," Gunning says, adding: "The cynicism goes when you understand that the audience sees through appropriation. For all the brands we work with, mental well-being is central to the mission. This is the world now; yes, you get called out if you are insincere, but likewise you get celebrated when you do well."

CALM is currently working with Nabs on its Fast Forward initiative, its eight-week training programme that sees future industry leaders compete on a live brief. Founded in 1999 by Jeremy Bullmore, over the past 18 years more than 1,300 delegates have taken part in the course, supported by a range of leaders across the ad industry who generously give up their time to support their programme.

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