Comic Relief & Project Everyone founder Richard Curtis shares how brands and marketers can change the world

For more than three decades now, one of Britain's most successful filmmakers, Richard Curtis, has gone about improving the world while also trying to make it laugh. As co-founder of Comic Reliefand more recently Project Everyone, he has helped raise millions in aid and attempted to influence political leaders to improve the future of the planet.

This week will see the third year that Project Everyone will push forward the Global Goals (see image below) that seeks to tackle 17 critical world issues that 193 global leaders agreed, in 2015, needed collective action to battle and, if achieved, would eradicate extreme poverty, inequality and climate change by 2030.

The event, taking place in New York, will feature the likes of President Barack Obama, Bill and Melinda Gates, Will.I.Am, activist Malala Yousafzai, Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan and others who will aim to highlight the need for agreements made by world leaders to become reality and not just theory.

During year one, Curtis worked with Sawa, with the help of Sir John Hegarty to release an animated advert to make people aware of what the Global Goals were. During year two, a stunt to hold the world’s biggest lesson took place to continue to raise awareness.

This year Curtis tells The Drum that he believes the campaign has entered ‘the recruitment phase’ where people will be challenged to make real change, now that the awareness-raising phase is over. It will be aided through a film made with Vice Impact that aims to draw attention to the positive changes taking place despite all the negative news being reported. He describes this issue as “generating publicity for the tortoise,” with good news being depicted by the fabled tortoise.

He explains: “A lot of people think that 2016 was the worst year ever and quite a lot of people think it was the greatest year in human civilization as 500,000 people dropped out of extreme poverty and child mortality was lower than its ever been. There are some wonderful things happening in the world but the question is 'how do you advertise when there is a destructive air of bad news which takes up all the publicity? How do we advertise and market how incredible it is that such progress is being made on so many areas of human suffering? That's one of the challenges news and marketing people must face - how do you make good things more prevalent? That's one of the things we are trying to do, particularly with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Find[ing] ways of telling people that the tortoise is slowly heading towards great things.”

The Vice film, 'The Best of Times, Worst of Times' is the latest method that will be used to influence celebrities and activists who are aiming to make the world a better place to push forward their agenda via the Global Goals.

“So much of people's engagement these days is with things that happen online and are not traditional media. You get someone like Jérôme Jarre [a Vine and Instagram influencer] who has a huge number of people engaged with him and his new initiative; The Love Army. You get someone like that talking about the goals and pushing their passions in that direction and making people understand that no matter what they are passionate about, the goals are a part of that — that's absolutely key. I don't think that just getting people to be passionate about the goals is an odd thing to do, we want to take the things that they are passionate about and, by aligning them with the goals and by supporting them, you will be making a substantial difference,” explains Curtis.

“We are showing a really good example of people who are thinking about all of these issues and are nudging it in the direction of 'actually there's a plan',” Curtis says of the Vice films. “We want to get people away from thinking 'there's an issue but there doesn't seem to be much I can do about that.' You actually say to people; 'when you are thinking about these issues, think that there might also be a solution and a political way of making particularly strong progress.'

As to how he sees the advertising sector making a difference, Curtis cites his experience of working on Comic Relief as one way that content creators can help change widespread perceptions.

“So many people have great passion and purpose in advertising and marketing," he explains. "A lot of Comic Relief's most successful moment have come from the likes of Paul Weiland making amazing videos and ads for us over the years. A huge breakthrough was when Sainsbury's started advertising on TV about selling the red noses.”

Curtis continues to discuss the increasing trend that marketers have been adopting: purpose-driven intentions for their brands and making those central to their marketing efforts.

“There are an increasing number of companies that do focus on telling young people and all their clients what they mean - that requires a new generational leap by the advertisers to work out ways of making that work,” he continues before adding that by working with organisations such as the Global Goals or Common Ground, agencies could work together to make a difference.

He is complimentary of the sustainability work being done by Unilever brands, including Dove and Life Buoy and reveals that Project Everyone has also been talking to phone companies, which are also attempting to change users lives in developing countries, and Aviva too; “There are things happening, company by company.”

Of advertising and broadcasters, he believes that the industry is set to enter “an interesting era” and talks about the change in mentality over the last decade since the Make Poverty History campaign was released.

“In 2005, my big problem with that campaign was that we couldn't really get a squeeze out of business at all. They looked at us as activists and lefties and non-government organisations, and not having an interesting partnership that benefited business. I do feel from the Cannes Lions focusing on this so much, to this brilliant document; 'Better Business, Better World' that businesses are starting to align themselves around each of the goals and I am hoping that is an area over the next few years that a purpose-driven business will focus on the application of the goals.”

Finally, when asked as one of Britain’s most successful writers (despite being originally from New Zealand) what advice Curtis would give to copywriters to be more successful, he laughs loudly at the notion of offering any advice. He takes a moment to think and then suggests that writers “apply themselves with zeal” to world issues.

“What I have tried to do with Comic Relief over all these years is to try and make the very funny stuff as good as any serious film and the very serious films as good as the funny stuff. The idea when you are going purpose-driven is that you accept things being one way or another and that is something everyone has to get over. So don't think 'this is the moment where I turn my mind to being worthy and this is the moment where I start thinking we won't sell anything but we might win an award.' It would be great to see people really apply themselves to the double challenge of doing good, purpose-driven things, but in a commercially-driven way. My advice would be that that can be done and should be done if possible.”

Watch Richard Curtis talk to The Drum about how he believes marketing can change the world in the exclusive video above and find out more about this week’s Global Goals event at the Project Everyone website.

Meanwhile, if you work in the marketing services sector and want to help The Drum change the world during Do It Day - then check out the website about events happening in London, Singapore and New York and find out how to help remove the stigma of mental health issues in the workplace in one day.

Stephen Lepitak

Stephen Lepitak is editor of The Drum, with responsibility for overseeing the day-to-day running of the content produced for the various platforms run by the publication. Over the years he has interviewed agency network bosses such as Sir Martin Sorrell, Maurice Lévy and Arthur Sadoun, as well as Cindy Gallop, Kim Kardashian, film directors James Cameron, Spike Jonze, Richard Curtis and Lord David Puttnam. With a keen interest in media and breaking news, Lepitak has been with The Drum since 2005 and is based across its UK, US and Asia operations.

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