How CALM moved away from mental health’s ‘sad lad’ image

Simon Gunning, CEO of the suicide prevention charity, explains why its “hit-driven” brand partnership approach works – and why more nonprofits should behave like brands

There’s a running joke, among the staff at suicide prevention charity CALM, that one of the most successful models in the world is the man who sits on the end of the bed, with his head in his hands.

“That’s what the mental health sector does,” says CALM CEO Simon Gunning. “You get a picture of a sad-looking bloke and you say, ‘Who will help the sad man?’, and put that on a poster. But we don’t. We went and made a set of 12-foot ears and stuck them on the side of a building on the Marylebone Road and said ‘grow a pair’.”

CALM – or, to give it the full name, Campaign Against Living Miserably – looks and sounds nothing like any other mental health charity, and that’s on purpose. The organisation has done everything from printing ‘feeling shit’s shit’ on toilet paper for International Men’s Day, to installing park benches across the UK in partnership with Netflix.

CALM grow a pair ad campaign with Seat
CALM grow a pair ad campaign with Seat
CALM partnered with car brand Seat on the ‘grow a pair’ mural in London

“We mustn’t lose the humour, the anger, the originality, the kind of dance moves that you don’t really see being exhibited by charities,” says the CEO. “We mustn’t lose that, because you can see what the alternative is – you become calcified by the constraints you imposed on yourself, because of the way that things have always been done.”

Gunning has led the charity for the last five years, joining CALM after stints in media, the music industry, TV and advertising, including working as marketing director at the BBC. He’s seen creative work made from both agency and client-side, but this was his first role at a non-profit organisation.