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How can marketing change the world? Five questions with Rob Holzer, founder and CEO of social impact agency Matter Unlimited

At SXSW, The Drum sat down with Matter Unlimited’s founder and CEO Rob Holzer to discuss how brands can effectively incorporate social good initiatives into their marketing efforts.

Holzer founded Matter Unlimited about five years ago as an agency “exclusively focused on social impact.”

Since then, the agency has worked with a number of brands to help them figure out what they stand for and how they can use their resources to drive positive change all around the world.

The agency also heavily works within the virtual reality (VR) space with its ‘Inside Impact’ film series that features stories “of positive social impact from around the globe.” Last year, Matter Unlimited worked with the Clinton Global Initiative to create a VR video that featured Bill Clinton during one of his trips to Africa, marking the first time a US president appeared in an Oculus film.

In the video above, check out what Holzer had to say when asked how marketing can change the world. See the rest of the interview below.

Matter Unlimited exclusively works on social impact projects. Why do you think this is an important focus for brands?

I often say that we’re in the early adoption stage of a purpose-led economy and I think that we’re kind of moving a little bit past that even. The common argument [from a commercial level] is that millennials increasingly care more and more about the brands that they’re interacting with and I think that’s true, but I also look at it as long-term brand value and how a company can really innovate. You need to attract and retain the best talent in a company. I think people in general, but certainly younger people, don’t want to work at a company that doesn’t really reflect their values anymore. So if you want to be an innovative company, you don’t just have to build an innovation lab. You have to have people that can actually innovate. The best talent are really thinking about where they’re going to spend their time because it is something that has become the most precious commodity to a lot of people. They want to spend their time on things that they care about and they also want to buy products from companies that they believe in. More and more that’s been proven out with data and trends and I think it’s just going to increase.

Recently, more and more brands have been working social good into their campaign strategies. Is there anything marketers should be wary of or look out for in this space?

Authenticity is key in this space. I think that the difficulty is, a lot of marketing is still locked in this kind of agency-client campaign seasonal landscape. That just doesn’t exist anymore, but the framework still exists in relationships between agencies and clients. When it comes to really purpose-led marketing, or doing something that will impact the brand positively in the long-term, it’s about really trying to figure out what you can stick to for a very long period of time and tell a story. It’s not so much about the old model of advertising where it’s like, “hey we did this great thing, now we’re going to tell you about it.” It’s now really more about, “here’s where we’re looking to go with our company, and this is our journey.” I think when you see companies doing that, where it doesn’t feel like this is just a one-off thing that they’re doing because they have a product launch or because this is kind of a trend, are the ones that are benefitting from it a lot.

Can you give any examples of brands that have done it well?

I worked on GE for seven years with Ecomagination. Seeing that company really transform its culture through that initiative was one of the inspirations for starting Matter Unlimited. I think that they were very clear and pragmatic about how they looked at doing this. They knew they would get a lot of flak at the beginning but they stated five year goals and said “this is what we’re going to do.” It was a very pragmatic approach. We talk to clients about that and ask them, “what is it that you really can stand behind as a company?” Figure out what you can tangibly do, whether you’re using your employees, your reach, your scale, your products, or your marketing to tell your story. Stay with it and show the impact along the way.

Over the past year, a lot of brands have started to experiment with VR. Do you think this is a good thing or do you think it’s something marketers should heavily consider before investing in it?

It is such early days. We’re in the tumbleweed days of virtual reality. I think it’s always good to experiment if you can. Some brands don’t have that capability but for the brands that do, I think experimenting with this new medium is good. I think in general, virtual reality for brands is going to be a little harder if they’re trying to get specific messaging out about what they do because [that might not be] the most interesting subject. But there are a lot of brands that are developing content. More people are getting into scripted stuff for VR and it’s getting more and more interesting. Last year was the year where everyone was sort of wringing their hands and deciding, “Is this a thing?” and I think that was decidedly a big “yes” for most companies.

Matter Unlimited was one of the first agencies to feature a US president in a VR film. How else can politicians leverage VR to get their messages out?

The great thing about VR is intimacy and rarified moments. When we can capture really intimate moments, like in our film with President Clinton where you’re in his office and you’re sitting there, that’s an intimate moment. I’ve now played the film for thousands of people personally, and many people actually sit up in their chairs when they first see the president. It’s that real. Or if you’re with him in Africa, with the Solar Sister Project in Karatu, Tanzania, and you’re in this rural home of this woman, sitting around a living room table. It’s you, President Clinton, and the Solar Sisters there. To make a moment like that is really incredible. Politicians have the ability to do things like that. With VR, when you become the camera and you’re in there and you create that sense of presence, that’s where the real power lies. It’s really about the intimacy at the moment that VR provides and that’s where the empathy starts to happen. I’ve been in digital for twenty years and I haven’t been as excited about something in tech since seeing the world wide web.

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Minda Smiley

Minda Smiley is a reporter at The Drum covering creativity and advertising. Based in Philadelphia, she oversees creativity coverage in North & South America and runs The Drum’s weekly “US Creative Works” roundup. During her time at The Drum, she has covered industry events including SXSW, ANA Masters of Marketing, 4A’s Transformation and C2 Montréal and has interviewed dozens of creatives for The Drum’s “What does it take to be a great creative?” video series.

All by Minda