MullenLowe Group UK's José Miguel Sokoloff likes to cite an infamous quote about how "advertising is the price you pay for having lame products" to illustrate that today's brands need to do more than simply sell stuff.
"What we [as advertisers] do is make unlame brands," he says. "You can do it through social purpose, as an activist brand, or by being a famous brand."
But ultimately, says the agency’s Chief Creative Officer, "you can't escape lacking things to say. You don't doubt when you buy laundry detergent that it will clean your clothes, so what makes you buy one brand over another?"
Sokoloff spoke about his efforts to develop socially responsible campaigns during the Genius 100: Innovation Summit held over the weekend in Montreal.
"Creativity is an act of optimism," Sokoloff says. "We can use communication tools to solve societal issues."
Sokoloff’s passion for cause-related advertising was sparked through his agency's partnership with the Ministry of Defense in Colombia, Sokoloff's native country. The nation’s Defense Ministry sought his advice and talents to demobilize FARC guerrilla rebels as the country pushed towards reconciliation. "We needed to get as many guerrillas out of the jungle in a peaceful way."
And the most effective tactic was through his work. "Advertising is just tackling old problems in new ways. You just have to understand the motivation," he says.
One key realization was that all prior communication was macro-targeted, such as government to guerrillas or army to army. Instead, "we concentrated on humans and what unites us," he says.
The campaign first launched via radio, since most guerrillas were close enough to receive audio transmission.
Other components were added, including the introduction of several 25-meter tall Christmas trees during the holiday season that suggested, "If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home," says Sokoloff.
The agency also released gifts wrapped in balls of lights to float down the river and soccer balls dropped into the jungle, encouraging guerrillas to watch the World Cup.
Another phase of the campaign included posting photos of the soldiers as children to remind them they are still part of a family that misses them.
Out of 38,000 rebels, the 10-year multifaceted campaign demobilized 24,000 soldiers, including 18,000 specifically attributed to MullenLowe's efforts. The initiative was also recognized with numerous awards, including the gold Cannes Lion in 2014.
This campaign now underscores the agency's approach with its clients, meaning that brands need actionable goals that encapsulate a brand's core philosophy. "There is so much BS about social purpose and trying to have a purpose that brands try to make it worthwhile through a powerpoint chart."
But his experience has taught him what works and what doesn't when crafting these messages.
"You cannot, for instance, get everyone to stop using plastic or pretend to clean the world from plastic. Or have a brand say they are for carbon-free fuels. What works is a real message that resonates," Sokoloff notes.