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Rebels with a cause: how do gooders do good

The New Blood Awards D&AD White Pencil is in a different league. It’s reserved for shortlisted projects that weave social good, sustainability or positive behaviour change into their solution. It can be won for any brief, and is equal to a Yellow, so it’s kind of a big deal. Henry Hicks, of Futerra, knows just what it takes to create work for change, and win the white. We picked his brains on being a rebel with a cause.

Who are Futerra, what do you do and why do you do it?

Futerra is a change agency. Our mission is to make sustainable development so desirable it becomes normal.

That means all the work we do is geared towards creating positive change. We do everything you expect a creative agency to do - branding, campaigns, social purpose etc - but we also have a consultancy side to our practice. That team works with clients to figure out what their contribution to a better, more sustainable future is and what is the business case for doing it.  We call it 'logic' and 'magic'.

Our roster is a mix of big global and national brands with some NGOs, foundations and start-ups. We were founded in London 17 years ago and also have offices in New York, Stockholm and Mexico City. We’re independent, majority female-owned and led, and work with clients all over the world from Hong Kong to Peru.

What's it like working somewhere with such a strong mission?

Honestly, it’s like working with your mates. We’re a mixture of folks who have been working on this stuff our whole careers, as well as recent escapees from traditional agencies who wanted to use their powers for good.There’s very little ego because we’re all working towards the same thing - changing the world. But there’s pressure too because you’re working on stuff that matters. You want to get it right, and people are passionate about it.

The issues we deal with can be pretty heavy - climate change, women’s equality, human rights, species loss - which means that optimism is very important. Especially because pessimism, fatalism and anger don’t make for great communications.

There’s a lot of silliness, a lot of dressing up, lots of cake. Our co-founder Ed Gillespie likes to say “If you want to subvert the dominant paradigm you have to have more fun than they are, and let them know while you’re doing it.”

REI is an outdoor clothing and equipment retailer and also a cooperative. They’re famous for recently closing their doors on Black Friday and inviting their employees and members to spend the day outside instead. We worked with them on a piece of thought leadership to create the intellectual argument for why all we need to spend more time outside. It was pretty eye-opening. The average American spends 95% of their time indoors but spending time outdoors can combat depression, make us healthier and happier, make our cities more liveable and improve childhood development. We put the finding together into a report called The Path Ahead that launched with a short teaser film in time for their annual #OptOutside campaign.

Behaviour change – how hard is it to make happen, and how do you get it right?

It’s not easy - especially if you’re trying to change behaviours through communications alone. If you can also influence product, service or systems design then you have a better chance.

But whatever the brief and tools at your disposal, the two key traits that improve your chances are empathy and humility. You have to really know (and almost love) the people you’re trying to change and remember that the audience are who they are, not who you want them to be. Meeting them, experiencing their reality, desires and frustrations is imperative.

What's the most powerful thing you've learnt about people's behaviour and how they interact with brands?

For client and agency the brand is such a huge focus and presence, but most people couldn’t care less about your brand. It’s such a small part of normal people’s lives. So instead of saying “we’re a big business, let’s go change people’s behaviours,”  I’d flip it around and ask the question, “how can we help people? Can we fix a problem for them? Can we make it easier to get something done?”

There's a phenomenon called the 'value-action gap'. It’s the gap between the values or beliefs that people have and the action they end up taking. So, someone might say “I care about the environment” but they’re always buying plastic water bottles. It’s not that they’re lying, they probably do care, but life gets in the way and they don’t live up to the values they express. That’s an opportunity for a brand to say, “how can we help?” Maybe this person thinks reusable bottles are naff, or they hate the design of them because they don’t fit in a bag, maybe they just forget.

Last year we had an all-female team work on a project to fight Trump - specifically his administration’s proposal to make 62.4 million women in America pay for birth control. It was a lot of fun - from comedians handing out condoms with Trump’s face on them outside his hotels, to projecting messaging onto buildings in Washington D.C. and doing and airstream tour of college campuses. The team also created an invoice generator which calculated the cost of your birth control if the proposal went through and then allowed you to send it straight to the government.

If you could recruit a new generation of 'do gooders', what's the most important thing you think they'd bring?

Energy, optimism, diversity, empathy, good music and a sense of humour.

We worked with the UN on a campaign to tackle the illegal trade in wildlife trafficking. We wanted to avoid the usual pictures of dead elephants and rhinos as we felt that was a crowded and tired space which was losing its effectiveness. Instead we created a bold, colourful campaign led by the UN’s celebrity ambassadors. It invited people to take a short quiz to find their spirit animal, pledge to protect by lending their name to that animal, and then create a unique profile picture that combined their faces. When Neymar joined the campaign his instagram got half a million likes in a day which was pretty nuts.

Any advice for keeping sustainability and social good on your radar when working on briefs for brands...

Be bold, don’t wait for a perfect brief. Ask yourself “what is this brand’s role in creating a better future?”, and then push to do work that leverages that. If the brand has no role in making things better or no appetite to do so, then maybe you shouldn’t be working with them.

If you think you've got what it takes, hit the links below and show us what you've got.

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