“We decided to take the sports sponsorship model and apply it to scientists.”
What happens when marketing strategy is applied to environmental conservation efforts? For the answer, look to The Ocean Agency, a nonprofit dedicated to marine conservation. Founded in 2010 by a former advertising executive, its mission is to use “disruptive, technology-driven, headline-grabbing ideas” to create excitement, inspiration and momentum for ocean science. The approach has earned it an Emmy and a partnership with Google.
Richard Vevers, founder and CEO of The Ocean Agency, catches up with us about the importance of working with human bias, how he leverages creative communication, and the power of names.
What is The Ocean Agency and how did it start?
The Ocean Agency is a not-for-profit based in the United States, focused on ocean conservation and founded in 2010 when we were still based in Australia. I was working in advertising in London when I had a really bad meeting one day, walked out and decided to be an underwater photographer. That wasn’t the most lucrative career choice!
But I started working with a lot of conservation organizations and that was when I really began to understand the issues facing ocean conservation. One of the biggest issues of all is the fact that the vast majority of people don’t dive, so they never get to see what’s happening. I took that as a communication challenge and decided to open up a not-for-profit really focused on revealing what was happening in the oceans.
You describe The Ocean Agency as “a conservation organization that aims to leverage human nature rather than fight against it.” What do you mean by that?
There are a lot of skills you learn in advertising, like how to create demand and how to really inspire action. And those are the skills that we need in conservation, especially in this day of utter distraction. So it’s about really understanding human nature to be able to communicate effectively in this area, and that’s where having the background in advertising is certainly an enormous help.
How does this advertising lens set The Ocean Agency apart?
Our approach is completely unique. There are so many conservation organizations out there, all doing amazing work. They just don’t have support. What we felt was needed was not another conservation organization competing for the same small pots of cash, but one that is trying to grow the amount of funding available, to grow the support, and to grow the expertise that is able to help with ocean conservation.
Can you give an example of how you’re applying advertising models and strategies to the field of ocean conservation?
For one of our first projects, we worked with scientists who had been struggling to get funding for a project surveying coral reefs. Part of it was just presentation: they had unattractive equipment, they were not dressed to look like a team, and they were going on what the scientific community calls “cruises.” So, they found it very difficult to achieve any funding.
The traditional way to secure funding for scientific research is to go for grants, and as a scientist you can spend 50% of your time applying for grants because there’s so little money available. Instead, we decided to take the sports sponsorship model and apply it to the scientists. We said to a company, we can provide a better return on investment than if you sponsored a cricket or football team—with our science team.
This turned into a global project, valued in excess of $10 million, and the company made a far better return on investment than if they’d gone for a sports sponsorship. Those are the kinds of opportunities that are available if you tackle this with advertising eyes.
Your documentary, Chasing Coral, was picked up by Netflix and has just won an Emmy. You’ve partnered with Google to create underwater street view. How have you been able to bring this topic so thoroughly into the cultural mainstream?
Right at the start of what has become one of the biggest coral reef die-offs in history, we knew there was going to be an announcement from the US government’s monitoring body to raise awareness. We approached them—they’re called NOAA—and said we wanted to work with them on their press release.
They agreed, and we saw the press release about this global event that was about to take place. There were a couple of things that, from an advertising perspective, needed improvement: first, the imagery wasn’t very engaging, and secondly, the event didn’t have a name.
So, we provided new imagery. We were like the storm chasers of the ocean, finding these coral bleaching events and taking imagery using our 360 cameras.
But there was a debate in the scientific community about the name, whether this was the third event or the fifth event. We said, “we don’t care which one it is, just give us a number.” They settled on the third global bleaching event and, because we put a number to it, the press all immediately said, “why don’t we know about the first two?”
So suddenly we went from a press release that wouldn’t have gotten hardly any coverage to one that got over $100 million worth of coverage during the first year alone. It hit the front page of the New York Times with huge features and documentaries as a result, including a Time magazine digital feature.
But it was simply that positioning at the start, to give it a name. Finding the right language is what is so often missing and is the difference between getting funding and not getting funding, getting support for solutions to these global issues and not getting support.
Why is coral reef extinction such a critical topic?
Most people are aware that bird species are on the decline, mammal species are on the decline, and amphibians are on a steep decline. But coral reefs are crashing. At the rate we’re going, we could lose coral reefs entirely by about 2050. And bearing in mind that this is a planetary ecosystem on which 500 million people depend, and a quarter of all ocean life, and it’s a million species, that’s a very, very serious issue. From political stability to food security, it’s an economic disaster and it’s happening incredibly rapidly.
How has your approach evolved?
In our daily lives we’re bombarded with messages and we’re so busy that it’s difficult to stop and care about coral reefs.
I started off thinking this was an awareness issue, and simply by making people aware of the fact that coral reef extinction is impacting 500 million people and a quarter of all marine life, that logic would help fix the problem. But it doesn’t. Even economic arguments don’t help. This is such a complex issue, and such complex solutions are needed, that logic doesn’t work. And that’s really where advertising comes in. It’s about targeting not logic, but emotion.
Why should businesses care about coral reef extinction?
I think the whole market is changing, and suddenly there is this new generation coming through that is demanding that companies get involved. And suddenly what was seen as a philanthropic support from companies is now seen as a business opportunity and a business threat. The market is changing rapidly, so people who have the communications skills that have proved successful for selling brands and products are now in this unique position of making massive global change with those skills.