FCB Canada CCO Nancy Crimi-Lamanna speaks to Addison Capper about working with the Canadian Down Syndrome Society to attempt to change the medical industry’s views on the effects of exercise for people with Down syndrome
FCB Canada has been - and still is - on a five-year journey with the Canadian Down Syndrome Society
(CDSS), pushing out campaigns that genuinely tackle specific challenges that face people with Down syndrome every day. Projects such as Down Syndrome Answers
, a resource that offers palatable answers to medical questions often posed to Google, and Project Understood
, which aimed to teach Google's AI voice technology how to understand people with Down syndrome, have worked to help people with Down syndrome live their lives to the absolute fullest, while making the CDSS a champion for the Down syndrome community globally.
The latest work from the partnership is arguably not a campaign at all: it's a first-of-its-kind research study to collect data to examine whether physical and brain exercise should be an integral part of cognitive therapies for people with Down syndrome. To quote the launch press release: "For too long, the role of fitness has been an overlooked and undervalued tool in helping to support the lives of people with Down syndrome. Anecdotal evidence from within the community has shown exercise can help people with Down syndrome improve their cognitive function and physical abilities. But outdated assumptions and stigma towards people with Down syndrome have caused fitness to be rarely encouraged for this community, denying them access to its benefits."
FCB and the CDSS are partnering with Dr. Dan Gordon and his research team from Anglia Ruskin University and with Dr. Michael Merzenich and his team from BrainHQ
to launch a research study and awareness campaign to examine this potential link between physical fitness and mental fitness for people with Down syndrome.
This new initiative, entitled 'Mindsets
', begins with a globally unprecedented study to chart the effects of brain and physical exercise on the abilities of people in the Down syndrome community. The effects of fitness on people with Down syndrome hasn’t been studied extensively, and because of this lack of data, many doctors and parents in the community continue to believe that fitness is not important for people with Down syndrome.
To find out more about how an ad agency came to launch a medical research study and its potential for the future, LBB's Addison Capper spoke to FCB Canada chief creative officer Nancy Crimi-Lamanna.
NB: The first stage of the study is already underway, but more participants are necessary to make the study as rigorous as possible, so please consider sharing this with your network. Those interested can register at mindsetsstudy.com
. The goal is to complete the study and share the results before the end of the year.
LBB> Your work for CDSS is on a roughly annual basis and each project has been well received publicly and in advertising award shows (and rightfully so!). But with that in mind, what's your starting point when beginning to work on something with the CDSS? Was there a brief or is it more fluid than that?
Nancy> There are so many different angles and challenges that we could tackle each year, but like any other FCB client, we follow our strategic process and look for a new way in with every brief. We start with the consumer journey and examine what could create the largest impact for the community. Our starting point is to identify a specific moment or issue we can affect that’s unique to the Down syndrome community. We identify opportunities around inclusion, employment, and other categories like exercise then begin to deep dive into data and community learning to put a sharper focus on our brief. There are a number of issues when it comes to exercise for the Down syndrome community, but we quickly understood that first we needed to overcome the perceptions by doctors and caregivers that they are fragile and therefore exercise isn’t prescribed as a therapy to help overcome various physical and cognitive issues. Doctors understand data and that’s what we needed to come up with to make it irrefutable.
LBB> At what point in conversations did fitness as a focal point come up? And what spurred that conversation?
Nancy> We decided early on to tackle fitness as the focus of this year’s brief, and we were in concept development when we saw the story of Chris Nikic and his father, Nik. It led us to wonder if this incredible story could have farther reaching implications and be proven throughout the community. As the idea came to life and we approached our partners at Anglia Ruskin University and BrainHQ, we realised that a study of this magnitude had never been attempted, and that’s when we and our partners got really excited. Not only is it ground-breaking, but it has the power to create true and lasting change. ‘Mindsets’ has the potential to impact the lives of our Down syndrome communities and their families around the world.
LBB> Can you speak a bit about the relationship between people with Down syndrome and fitness? And why has it been discouraged for so long?
Nancy> At the moment, exertive exercise is not a part of most prescribed therapies as a way to increase both physical and cognitive fitness. Parents and caregivers need to change their perception of individuals with Down syndrome being too fragile to participate in exercise and especially vigorous physical activity and provide encouragement rather than negative support.
Our hope is to scientifically prove these benefits and to publish and bring awareness of our findings to both the Down syndrome community and the medical professionals who serve them. So instead of the Down syndrome community being discouraged and excluded from the benefits of exercise, it becomes an integral part of therapy.
LBB> Last year's Project Understood was very technology focused, whereas this project uses arguably the oldest and most analogue of activities - exercise - to really benefit people with Down syndrome. Was that a conscious decision or just the way that it happened? Can you speak to that point a bit more?
Nancy> We see Mindsets as an evolution of the five-year journey we’ve been on with the Canadian Down Syndrome Society. We have a long history of tackling the specific challenges that face the community in an effort to improve their lives. More than create awareness, our work creates real and meaningful solutions and partnerships that live long past any one campaign. Beginning with ‘Down Syndrome Answers’ in 2016 through to our partnership with Google on ‘Project Understood’, which launched in 2019, and now with ‘Mindsets’. We are positively impacting their lives and bringing them the tools required to live their fullest lives possible.
Both ‘Down Syndrome Answers’ and ‘Project Understood’ are solutions to real problems that impact people’s lives every day. Not only are we solving these issues, through the creation of useful tools, but we are also helping drive Down syndrome community inclusion.
LBB> There is, however, a heavy tech aspect, with the app and all of the data feeding into it. How did you go about building that element of the project?
Nancy> We needed a way to track the data and our findings. It struck us that the tools to do that were right in front of us in the form of wearable fitness technology like Fitbits and the brain training programs like BrainHQ. The issue is no one had ever brought the two together to track the impact one could have on the other. That’s when the Mindsets app was born as a way to overlay and correlate those two data sets together in one app. But we needed to make the daily routine of it easy and seamless. Getting people to follow a regular physical and cognitive regimen is a challenge, so Mindsets needed to have as few barriers as possible to participation and engagement. The app even includes inspirational content from our ironman, Chris Nikic, to keep our community motivated.
LBB> There are a lot of different parties involved too - doctors, BrainHQ, and obviously FCB and CDSS. How did you get everyone involved and how did you all work together to get this off the ground?
Nancy> The fact that FCB, an ad agency, came up with the concept of a research study, which doesn’t happen every day, was very intriguing to our partners and also took away any sense of competition or proprietary issues between them. With our storytelling skills and the strategic insights leveraged to get us to the concept, it was very easy for our partners to get excited and engage with us.
They each brought their own expertise and a tremendous amount of excitement and passion to the project. A partnership like this requires deep respect for what each of us does as well as deep collaboration to do our individual parts. One wouldn’t have worked without the other. Once our partnerships were solidified, communication was essential to pulling things together. FCB led weekly status meetings with Dr. Gordon and his team at ARU, with BrainHQ, and obviously with CDSS. FCB also facilitated meetings with the entire team and often from one partner to another, such as Dr. Gordon meeting with BrainHQ to align to the proper suite of brain exercises.
When it comes to creating ideas that have never been done, you need to be fearless in finding the solutions and partners to bring them to life. We have more than a healthy dose of fearlessness at FCB and pride ourselves on being completely media agnostic in how we solve problems - sometimes that means leaving the realm of advertising altogether.
LBB> This will be an ever-evolving project, I imagine, constantly boosted by the data feeding into it. What do you see for the future of the project? Again, looking to the future, what are aims, hopes and ambitions for this campaign?
Nancy> Once the study is complete, the findings will be published. We are planning on releasing it within the Down syndrome, medical, research communities and, of course, the world at large. We hope this will be the first research study that will scientifically prove the benefits of increased fitness on the cognition of the Down syndrome community. If proven, this study will be ground-breaking and transformational for the community. Through the publishing and subsequent coverage of the study’s findings, this will empower the Down syndrome community to pursue and even advocate for physical fitness to become a more significant aspect of their prescribed therapies.
As for the Mindsets app, one day, we imagine a world where this app will be available to the entire Down syndrome community and all people with cognitive disabilities to track their own journey and progress.
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
Nancy> Once we developed the concept, the trickiest part was building the team to bring our idea to life. We reached out to a number of partners for all aspects of the program. Many did not return our cold calls, but we persevered. We engaged several potential partners, and eventually found BrainHQ and Dr. Dan Gordon at Anglia Ruskin University, partners that were as enthusiastic and committed to the project as we were.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Nancy> Through the power of sharing and earned media, we’ve already had a number of participants register for the study. So please share far and wide. I guarantee you that someone in your network knows someone living with Down syndrome. The sooner we can get to 200 participants from around the world, the sooner we can collect the data to make exercise integral to their development.