Partnerships and the power of the big idea with UNICEF global chief of brand building

Marketing speaks with David Ohana, about his work driving real change with some of the world’s top creatives and influencers.

After performing pro bono work for the United Nations (UN) as a student and cutting his teeth in ad land at Saatchi & Saatchi, David Ohana (pictured, centre) began working at the UN full time in 2008. Today, he works with some of the world’s top creatives and biggest stars to change the lives of millions of children in communities around the world. 

Before his appearance in Australia, Ohana chats with Marketing about the power of a big idea, how business and creativity can combine to solve world problems, and his upcoming appearance at the Good is the New Cool Conference in Melbourne and Sydney.

David Ohana: global chief of brand building at UNICEF: I started my career at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising here in Australia. I had a fairly unusual path to the UN in that it actually started when I was at university at Charles Sturt in Bathurst. We had to pick a client and do an advertising campaign for them. I narrowed it down to either Nike or the UN. They both sounded like big global brands. I called up the UN in New York, kind of on a whim and as it turned out, it was at the time it was looking for an advertising agency to work with for World AIDS Day.

To cut a long story short, we won the pitch – and a campaign produced by a couple of university students in country NSW, was being played right around the world. It was my first foray into that world.

Shortly after, a job came up in East Timor. Someone at the UN said, ‘Who’s that guy in Australia who did the World AIDS Day campaign? Why don’t we send him?’ I got to see firsthand the impact of the work that the UN was doing. During this time I was granted an Advertising Federation of Australia (AFA) traineeship at Saachi & Saachi and I spent the next five years bouncing back and forth between the two roles.

In East Timor, we were working on a project to move families away from areas where there was dengue fever and militia on a Tuesday, and I started at Saachis on a Wednesday, sitting in this really plush boardroom and working on a brand challenge for a client (whether the logo should come in a few seconds earlier or later in a TVC’). I remember thinking, ‘if we had 10% of the creative power, the resources, the partnerships, that we have in this room’ – if we applied that to the work I was doing in East Timor, it could have actually potentially solved a ton of challenges, and even saved lives. That experience really solidified the work I’ve been doing ever since. 

I jumped the fence about 10 years ago to the UN. At the UN in New York, I’m the head of brand building for UNICEF. Before that I was head of film and special projects for the part of the UN working on emergencies and disasters, and also worked as a content producer for former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. I have been fortunate to have travelled and worked around the world from North Korea to the North Pole, often witnessing the very best and worst of humanity.

In ad land, I was always the guy pulling in a lot of the cause-related briefs, and now at the UN I’m doing the reverse. I’m working to engage the best and brightest of the creative community, to work with us, to help solve the many challenges that the UN, and now UNICEF, are facing around the world.

There’s this curious phenomenon I found, which is in advertising, we could take anything, I mean any object, something as simple and banal as a bar of soap and by applying a ton of creativity and marketing and insights, we could amplify it up into something amazing and ‘life changing’. Whereas, I joined the UN and I often saw we were dealing with life changing issues every single day, but we were somehow applying this kind of proprietary, bureaucratic process and de-amplifying into something about as exciting as a bar of soap. I think almost all the tools, methodologies, audience understandings and insights, essentially all the tricks of the trade that we use to promote products in ad land, can very powerfully be brought across to help the UN and our partners solve some of the most important issues facing our world, and all of us at the moment.

To me, the most exciting work being done at the moment is when you combine these two worlds around a really clear brief, with really clear objectives. I’ve got a formula in which we start with the communications challenge and work out who the best and brightest in the creative community is that we want to bring to bear on that challenge. We then combine this with at least one major influencer, really giving them some ownership of the challenge, then finally to this mix we throw in a money-can’t-buy UN experience – which could be an amazing place, or a person. We then bring these three elements together. On a number of occasions we’ve had some great successes and I think that’s where some of the most exciting work is: where cause meets creativity.

Marketing: It’s interesting to hear your creativity-led approach. Many people working in the space of charities or cause-led institutions, will speak about low marketing budgets, maximising reach with little resources – applying business objectives and know-how to these projects.

Listen, I think you need both. Obviously, it’s exciting that in our space, we’re bringing a lot of folks from the business world and private sector in. There is a lot of cross pollination of best-in-class from both worlds. But I really believe in the power of a big idea to really inspire and ignite people around a particular challenge. That’s where advertising, marketing, PR and digital worlds can come in and really make an impact.

I remember being a creative at Saatchis, leaving the office late at night and often the only people still sitting at their computers were the ones who were working on pro bono briefs. You could really tell if it was something they were passionate about, which really goes into the whole idea of one’s purpose and what the Good Is The New Cool event I’m doing in a couple of weeks is all about.

There’s nothing like a big idea to really move people and help solve challenges.

You’ve done a lot of great work with some big celebrities and some interesting figures. What’s your approach to building partnerships?

The rules for a good partnership are pretty timeless and universal. Any good partnerships or relationships in anyone’s lives, both personal and professional, are generally built on a foundation of trust. Trust is absolutely everything and needs to be built over time. The best partnerships are when you are clear about each other’s ‘why’, each other’s objectives and start from a real understanding of that. It’s got to be based on clear, open and honest communication. The best partnerships I’ve ever worked on have also been enjoyable and have been a good brand fit, cultural fit and people fit.

One project and influencer that we’ve done quite a lot of work with over the years at the UN and now at UNICEF, is Beyoncé – a really interesting partnership that grew out of a project back in 2012. The UN has a multitude of international ‘UN Days’ and sadly most of them go by fairly unnoticed. I was given the task in my first couple of years at the UN, of making one of these international days famous. World Humanitarian Day.

To make a day famous, firstly you need to get it known, you need to get it on the calendar. We set the task of trying to reach a billion people on one day with one message. To do that, you need a big idea, and it would certainly help to have one of the world’s biggest and most influential voices on board. So, we came up with a collaboration with Beyoncé and her team, where we shot a live music video in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Hall, working with a number of agencies, Droga5, Ridley Scott and Associate and others. Again, it was an example of bringing together the best in the creative community, a big influencer and a money-can’t-buy UN asset, which in this case was the UNGA Hall.

We shot the video in front of a live audience, including representatives from around the world and families of aid workers who had either been killed or kidnapped in the line of duty. We employed social media technology called Thunderclap – to capture everyone’s intent to support the Day, hold it and blast it out onto the internet at the same moment. A tonne of other influencers – Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Shakira, Lionel Messi, Justin Bieber, as well as brands like Nike and Adidas all got on board. At the end of the day we ended up reaching about 1.4 billion people. 

That has been seen over 109 million times online. It was great way to launch the day, and certainly met the objectives of the campaign that year, but when we all sat down and did the evaluation, we decided that next time we joined forces, we wanted to do it on a project where results could be measured, well be beyond just social media reach – with real impact on the ground.

This opportunity has presented itself through an initiative called BEYGOOD4BURUNDI, which is helping to solve the water crisis in Burundi – a country where only about half of the population has access to clean, safe water. This is being done through the creation of safe water points – wells and building sustainable communities around them. Beyoncé and her team are leading on the project with UNICEF, and it’s something of which I’m super proud. In a few years time, we’ll be able to look back and what started as a big music video project at the UN, will end up on the other side of the world helping change communities and bring clean, safe water to thousands of women, children and families in Burundi.

What have you got in store for your appearance at the Good is the New Cool conferences?

I’m really looking forward to it. Some of the most exciting work happening at the moment is when you combine the power of brands, creativity of agencies and reach of influencers around tangible challenges. I love taking massive, seemingly intractable problems, breaking them into bite-sized pieces and working with the right people to help solve small parts of big problems, so we really can show change and impact. 

I’ll be sharing a little bit about my own personal experiences and life story growing up in Sydney and the rather unorthodox path that led me to work at the UN in New York. I’ll be taking the participants through some of the biggest, boldest successes and sometimes failures of projects I’ve worked on. We have a master class immediately following the presentations. It’s an interactive session where I’ll dive more deeply into any of the initiatives attendees want to learn more about, sharing examples that are relevant to the Australian context and to the various roles of the participants. From then, we’re going to unveil a couple of really exciting projects and initiatives that are coming up in which people can get involved.

This is an area that is moving so quickly. No one is truly an expert, with lots of ‘beta’ testing, and the occasional missteps. I remember when I joined advertising, there was still kind of an awkward link with the cause world. You would get the brands that would donate $1 million and then spend $10 million PR’ing about the fact that they donated $1 million. Or where agencies would come up with a powerful TV commercial for a cause then just run it once at 3.00AM to enter it into an award show. 

There was always a bit of scepticism, from both sides, mistrust between the two worlds. But, I think that’s really not the case these days. Brands and causes are figuring out smarter ways to work together – which is amazing for staff morale, retention – and ultimately to effect positive change in the world. As a result we’ve seen some amazing impact. And we could sure use some more good news stories right now.

Good is the New Cool is partnering with UnLtd for a pair of events in Melbourne and Sydney

Marketing is proud to have UnLtd as its Content Partner. UnLtd brings the Australian media, marketing and advertising industries together to tackle a big issue: undoing youth disadvantage. We urge you to visit unltd.org.au and get involved.

Ben Ice
BY Ben Ice ON 1 August 2019
Ben Ice is editor at MarketingMag