Why Chicago hired a small agency to lead its vaccination campaign
When the city of Chicago began looking for an agency to help communicate coronavirus vaccination programs for Black and Brown residents, officials reached out to big holding company shops. But the city ended up hiring a boutique, minority-owned agency to lead the effort—Chicago-based Flowers Communications Group.
“A lot of the holding company agencies made big progress to diversify their talents [and] their teams, but there is still not deep knowledge on a neighborhood level,” says the city’s chief marketing officer, Michael Fassnacht. By that he means that big agencies lack the expertise to connect with minority audiences on a deeper level, including connecting with lower-income residents, he says. “We didn’t see too many holding company agencies who really have expertise in that,” he says.
Fassnacht would know: He spent 10 years running Interpublic-owned FCB Chicago before stepping down at the end of 2019. The German-born executive now holds dual roles as the city’s CMO and president-CEO of World Business Chicago, a public-private, non-profit partnership charged with economic development and job creation.
Fassnacht discusses the city’s vaccination campaign on the latest edition of the “Marketer’s Brief” podcast along with Michelle Flowers Welch, chairman and CEO of Flowers Communications Group. The episode comes from the duo’s appearance this week at the Ad Age Next: Multicultural Marketing conference.
Flowers Welch describes the many challenges faced by the agency and city in communicating the need to get vaxxed, including convincing young adults. “There is a sense of invulnerability that they are not going to be the ones to get [COVID],” she says. “For the Black community, there is the historic perspective of what happened with the Tuskegee experience,” she adds, referring to the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study from 1932 to 1972 that subjected Black people to government-run abusive medical tests during which they were not informed about their condition.
“There was also concerns about taking time off from work,” she adds about getting a COVID-19 vaccine. “There are so many layers in getting to people who [are vaccine suspicious.] We’ve really had to customize and tailor messages and use influencers to really connect with them.”
The plan has included making vaccines available at barbershops, long a trusted gathering place for Black residents, as well as connecting with faith communities. Ads have starred influential people such as Chicago-born actor Harry Lennix.
The barbershop program included a so-called “Vax and Relax" initiative that promised free haircuts for people who got shots.
“We really integrated the messaging with the distribution point,” Fassnacht says.
Flowers’ agency is included in weekly meetings held on Saturdays during which leaders view real-time vax data and make adjustments to the outreach plan.
“That holistic view, very data-driven, what works what didn’t work, has really helped us,” says Fassnacht.
As of Tuesday, 38.5% of Black residents of Chicago have gotten at least their first dose and 46.6% of Latinx residents have done so, according to city-reported data. That falls short of the 61.4% of white residents with at least one dose. But when it comes to vaccinating Black residents, Chicago holds a lead on some other large cities, including Philadelphia, where 34% of Black residents have one dose, according to The Washington Post. In New York City, 32% of Black residents have one dose.