A new advertising campaign aims to help students make sense of their higher education experience. We asked director Nik Morris to enlighten us about the vibrant and ground- breaking initiative HEAR.
- Please could you tell us a little bit about the project, some background and what you are hoping for it to achieve?
Degree certificates don’t give employers much information; they don’t tell students much either. The HEAR, in the advert, stands for Higher Education Achievement Report, and it’s becoming available at many universities in the UK. It’s a verified electronic document they can consult throughout their degree and keep after graduation. It records all the activities and achievements of the student during their time in higher education.
The advert will raise brand awareness of the HEAR, make it attractive to new students. Also, we want the advert to help students make sense of their higher education experience whether their university offers a HEAR or not. We to reassure them of the value of what they’re doing.
- How did you go about coming up with the story for each character?
This was a lot of fun. I worked with Nikki Spalding and Chris Hoyle in the HEAR team at the Higher Education Academy - itself a national body enhancing the reputation of UK higher education - to write the advert. We talked about the conflicts in university life, thinking back to our own experiences, both positive and negative. After several meetings, sketches, and emails, we collectively came up with the #HEARoes concept and then I wrote the first draft of the screenplay.
- Was it cast and produced in York?
That’s right. It’s shot in York and Wakefield. We opened auditions at Heslington Studios, and cast from current theatre and film students in the city. For some it was their first professional acting job. We did go to agents in Leeds, but the screen tests we got in York went down really well with the HEAR team and we were able to cast a great ensemble. The dancers are the young company from Wakefield’s award-winning Momentum Dance, choreographed by Eddie Copp.
The crew were locally sourced too: Bethan King, our brilliant art director has worked in the prop department on features like Get Santa; Faye Robertson has been a makeup artist on shows like DCI Banks and Channel 4’s Cucumber, and Vicky Parry brought One&Other Creative’s considerable support and expertise to bear, so that the advert is stylish and diverting.
- Who is the target audience for the ad?
We’re specifically trying to connect with young people about to go to the university for the first time, and also those in their first few months that are confused about their progress, and the value of the journey they’re on. You don’t get continuous feedback during a degree, the way you do at school. And for students who may be the first in their family to go to university, the experience may be baffling; there are no reference points, no-one to ask, or tell them how they should be spending their time to get the most of their three years.
The video is being placed on The Student Room website alongside advertorial content in order to capture the attention of this target group. The Student Room gets millions of hits a year from students asking questions on their forums, and visiting for advice and support, so we felt this was the best way to find our audience.
- Could you tell us some background to each character and how audiences can relate?
I wanted to give plausible through-lines for each character: to see them at low points and high points, and crucially want them to succeed. Kenny bookends the ad: he’s an engineer with big ambitions. There’s one shot where he’s staring at a poster of Rodin’s The Thinker, this brief image demonstrating his anxiety: here he is in a seat of learning and time is passing him by, so how does he become what he wants to be? He is probably really bored with the Freshers Week he’s arrived to, but we revisit him experimenting in his department’s robotics lab, working with friends on student enterprise projects, and end with him in his job interview where he’s lost for words in front of a concerned panel, but he remembers his HEAR, and with the detail offered by this service he’s able to start talking himself up. We know he makes it, because of the opening and final shots.
Juliana is an aspiring software engineer. We know she’s an awful cook, living off noodles and takeaway. She’s also quite shy: we see her walk down a corridor and not immediately connect with her flatmates. She works independently and creates an original tablet game; we see her become a campus celebrity when it’s released on the app store.
Ananya is an MA student working a dawn bakery shift before lectures. She can’t manage her money well, and we see her arguing on the phone with her parents. Her days are a repetitive cycle of work, read, sleep, until she sees an opportunity at the dance society for a lighting designer. Her story brings us to the final high impact dance sequence.
Piotr is the sporty one, studying a land management related course. From lonely hungover cross country runs, we see him at lacrosse team trials, building his listening skills, self- discipline and camaraderie, he eventually leads his team in a match.
I really wanted the stories to plausibly allow a high-impact ending with physical bodies in movement. It makes the ad more shareable because it’s genuinely exciting, but we also knew student unions might play this at introductory talks in large lecture halls. It needed to feel big, and end with a bang. We tested it in a small cinema: it was great watching on the big screen.
- How did this collaboration come about?
I created the first explainer video for the HEAR in 2012. I think my background teaching and researching at university level really helped in conversations with their team. Early discussions involved empathising with the anxieties, attitudes and tastes of various target audiences, and working with their marketing team we saw eye-to-eye on the message, and as we refined the audience and script for this advert we always felt like a great team.