‘Join Our Team’: Why an army recruitment ad targeted women who play sport

Award-winning Rothco campaign for the Defence Forces has boosted female applicants

A military career is not for everyone. It's not even for everyone who gets as far as applying. The Defence Forces, asked by the Government to double the proportion of women in its ranks to 12 per cent, has found that reaching out to young women is only half the battle.

In 2015, some 530 women applied to enlist in the Irish forces after a recruitment campaign, but only 14 from this group have - so far - gone on to serve. For male applicants, the conversion rate to date is better at 293 from 4,766 initial applicants.

While some recruit platoons drawn from the 2015 campaign are still undergoing their basic training, meaning the numbers may yet rise, the trend for the female applicants suggested it was time for some fresh tactics.

So in May, a new campaign by advertising agency Rothco set about "hyper-targeting" the women deemed most likely to follow up on their Defence Forces application by doing the fitness test and making it through to the other side of training.


The campaign, which ran for three weeks on a budget of just €20,000, has gone on to win a silver Lion at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for its use of data-driven targeting.

It is a rare such Lion for the Irish advertising industry, and the only one taken home by an Irish agency this year (although FleishmanHillard won two PR Lions). The award also marks two in a row for Rothco, which won a bronze Lion in 2015 for its “A Shred of Decency” pro-equality campaign for Dublin stationers’ Daintree Paper.

“We became data snipers,” is how Rothco described its Defence Forces strategy. It identified the target audience as the estimated 11,700 women who were already adept at following orders, understanding team dynamics and throwing themselves into physical challenges.

Its “qualified leads”, as the marketing language puts it, were young women who play contact team sports.

"We wanted to emphasise qualities like courage, integrity, selflessness, respect, and loyalty, the things that we would pride ourselves on," says Capt John Forde from the Defence Forces press office.

“We felt that to get those people, we had to look at the sportier young women, the women who played football or basketball or camogie.”


Rather than stressing the difficulty of the fitness tests and basic training, the intention was to highlight to potential women recruits how tough and fit and prepared they already were for a life in the forces, and how they could be employed to do the things at which they excel.

The research indicated that women often ruled themselves out before going through the training because they didn’t think they were good or suitable enough, while a military career simply may not have been on the radar of others.

"You've been training all your life for this job. You just didn't know it," a one-minute video explicitly addressed sport-playing women. It went on to show the range of roles in the Defence Forces and concluded with the call-to-action "Join Our Team" (#JoinTeamDF).

Ahead of the campaign, the Defence Forces press office (the big winners at this year's Social Media Awards) added Snapchat and Instagram to a social media portfolio that already included YouTube, Twitter and, of course, Facebook.

For this campaign, Facebook was the key channel, according to Rothco, and its low-budget mission was assisted by the willingness of GAA clubs to share the recruitment video on their pages.

In the middle of the campaign, some of the paid advertisements that were running on YouTube did not seem to be yielding much response and were reallocated to Facebook. “We were monitoring what was working and what was not working,” says Capt Forde.

Homepage "takeover"-style ads appeared on female-oriented sites such as Maximum Media's Her.ie, which also ran a sponsored content interview with Sgt Valerie Cole, the chosen face of the campaign.

“We felt it was very important to have an attainable role model, to have someone where people can see themselves being that person,” says Capt Forde.

The number of female applicants has since shot up - the early indications suggested a 65 per cent increase. Although it is too soon to say if the rate of conversion will also improve, Capt Forde's colleague Sgt Rena Kennedy from the Defence Forces press office told digital marketing conference Measurement in May that the forces "confident" that the number of successful recruits this year will be significantly higher than 14.

But it’s not just about what happens in 2016. One of the reasons the Defence Forces is keen on youthful platforms like Snapchat is that it wants to get its message across to girls in their mid-teens who are too young to enlist right now, but may now be more likely to have it in their minds as an option when they turn 18.

“This sets the scene for the future,” says Capt Forde. “We hope it will have a knock-on effect.”

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics