'Big ideas can be taken from small examples': FCB's David Thomason on the importance of keeping it real

In a world of clogged up newsfeeds, sometimes the best content is bogged down by the biggest content. David Thomason uses Philip Simon, a down-to-earth, anti-smoking advocate and infectious personality as a gleaming but under-exposed example of social media gold, and wonders how marketers can use more holistic examples like this in their approach to social change, all while keeping it real.

By David Thomason | June 7, 2016 | opinion

Last week something popped up in my Facebook feed that stood out from the usual self-confirming mish-mash of proud family photos, cultural nostalgia, nearly scientific breakthroughs, and various articles declaring “Trump is a dangerous idiot but we should appreciate his marketing genius”.

Not that I’m being cynical. I’ve found those topics quite attractive. But amongst all that, a video made by someone called Philip Simon was delightfully different.

Simon’s already gathered media attention for recording and sharing his smoke-free journey, including a Stuffarticle in April. 

But one of his latest videos, 'After Dinner Smoke', takes things to a whole other level.

I don’t know a lot about Simon. Perhaps he’s read about behavioural economics as part of his personal journey. Perhaps he’s a natural who’s figured out the complexity of human psychology for, and on, himself. Or maybe it’s just entirely accidental brilliance. Whatever the case, I love this guy.

It looks pretty simple. At a basic level, he’s a natural performer, and literally at home with a camera. He throws in mime-like hand gestures, ad-libs, infectious laughs, spontaneous side-stories and great Kiwi expressions like, “She usually drinks it hard-out” (when talking about his young daughter and water).

Then there’s the obvious point that he’s proudly Māori. He’s not carefully cast or paid for by any national organisation or campaign looking to target his demographic. He’s speaking out, unscripted and unpolished, for purely personal reasons, about an issue that’s deadly serious for thousands like him – as recent headlines have reminded us. 

But there’s some much bigger strategic ideas in “After Dinner Smoke”. Ideas that go well beyond one man and tobacco. Ideas that anyone aiming to help create positive social change should at least contemplate. This might simply reinforce your current thinking. Or maybe it’ll lead you to some quite new approaches.

What struck me most wasn’t Simon's tip for using the dishes and music to avoid cigarettes. Or his delight in revealing a fridge crammed with healthy bottled water. It’s something that’s almost incidental to the video. It’s the simple relationship between father and son. Because I reckon that’s what a lot of New Zealand’s social problems are really about.

And by global standards, New Zealand has some pretty big problems, like family violence and child abuse, smoking, drugs and alcohol abuse, dangerous driving, depression and suicide, just to name a few of the biggies. And, on top of all that, add inequality and discrimination.

New Zealand’s small, but these problems are huge. So the people and organisations trying to make a difference are stretched very thin. Resource is divided across so many different issues and initiatives that it’s hard to build and maintain momentum and affect real, lasting change on any of them. Sometimes it almost feels like there’s a roster system. “Ok New Zealand, this is what you should be worried about this week…”

Perhaps it’s time for a more holistic approach.

Interestingly, commercial brand marketers have been dealing with the same challenge. Their product ranges have become wider - just look at the scale and variety in a supermarket today compared with 25 years ago – yet their total budgets have become smaller, as they’re fragmented across multiple channels. They could carry on the same way as they did 25 years ago, trying to support all major sub-brands and variants. Or perhaps support just a few hero products at a time. Or they can choose to take a more holistic approach and focus primarily on building a strong master brand - one that connects meaningfully, with as many people as possible, for generations.

When it comes to thinking holistically about social change you can debate endlessly which issue (or sub-brand) is at the heart of the problems. It’s chicken and egg. Is it lack of education? Excessive drinking is behind a lot of destructive behaviour. And poverty is absolutely a contributing factor.

I believe the most powerful factor, the one right in the middle, is parenting. But even that one topic covers many separate issues. So, to be a little more specific, what I’m talking about, and what Simon is demonstrating, is positive role-modelling.

There’s very little said between Simon and his son - just an echoing of the word “fun”. Although that’s significant in itself. And then there’s some great impromptu dancing. But watch Hunter watching dad. The looks of pride and admiration are wonderful. He’s not only seeing dad demonstrate his way to a healthier and happier life, he’s also watching it being shared with others.

Grow up watching a dad behaving like that and you’ve got a dramatically improved chance of avoiding those social problems. It’s inspiring and contagious. Simon isn’t just doing something for himself. He’s doing it for his son and generations to come. And he’s doing it for anyone who watches this video.

Don’t get me wrong. At last look 'After Dinner Smoke' only had about 1,100 views. But big ideas can be taken from small examples (and watch this space, at FCB we’re so impressed with the video and what it represents, that we’re going to donate some social media expertise to help boost its exposure). All in all, I think there are three great ideas demonstrated here:

1. Holistic: maybe we should spend less time picking out all the individual issues, and more time on the big ones that can help with them all; parenting. It’s the timeless skill that changes everything.
2. Fun: there’s no preaching with Simon. This is entertaining stuff. And it’s not some sanitised, carefully scripted version of an idealistic world. It’s natural, warts and all, laid-back Kiwi humour.

3. Role modelling: most of all, this is inspiring and very real, positive role modelling. Simon is so likeable we feel immediately inspired to be more like him, and become a better parent – even if it’s just a reminder to spend more simple quality time with our kids.

But that leaves me with a final challenge for all of us involved with social marketing. How can we take an approach this amazing, and scale it up without stuffing it up? How can we keep it real?

David Thomason is chief strategist at FCB New Zealand.

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