The statistic that every 15 seconds a child dies from a disease caused by lack of clean drinking water can jostle almost anyone with a heart to dig into their pockets. It’s no surprise, then, that agencies have stepped up to the plate to create pro-bono work that helps bring clean water to children. What’s unusual is when such work is so attention getting that it not only raises a good deal of money, but garners prestigious awards.
Brussels, Belgium-based Mortierbrigade’s out-of-the-box pro-bono creative, “Black Boy Wanting Water,” won a Titanium Lion at the Cannes International Advertising Festival this year, as well as Lions in the Direct and Media competitions.
That week in June is one that Jens Mortier, creative director at the 23-person agency, says he’ll never forget. A member of the Film jury, he spent much of his time reviewing commercials, but as the week progressed and his agency’s work was honored in one competition after another, his anticipation built. The excitement culminated at the end of the week, when the work walked away with the Titanium Lion.
“We never expected to win that,” says Mortier, a 40-year-old writer who co-founded the agency three years ago. “It was unbelievable.”
The agency, whose clients include Mobistar and Deutsche Bank, started working on the campaign last October, when it was asked by client Studio Brussels, a radio station, to come up with a campaign for its yearly “Music for Life” fundraiser. (For five days in December, three of the station’s DJs are locked up in a glass studio spinning music; listeners are asked to call in to make a request for the price of a donation.)
The “Music for Life” event, benefiting the Red Cross and its water programs, aimed to raise awareness about the problem of limited drinking water in Africa. “We were looking for another way to approach this problem, not to just make an advertisement,” says Mortier. “We wanted to find a much more direct way of confronting people with this problem.”
Instead of creating a spot asking for help, the agency had a young black boy, Gaetan, run into live broadcast studios to grab the glass of water usually unnoticed in front of newscasters or show hosts, drink it, then run off again.
“We thought by having this boy [take] it we could say it’s maybe not so normal to have a glass of water, and make it clear it’s not in reach for millions of other people,” says Mortier.
To keep the reactions as real as possible, the agency informed only the the shows’ producers in advance, keeping the on-air talent in the dark. “They didn’t know this was going to happen,” says Mortier. He adds that it “wasn’t so easy” keeping the project quiet, but the station owner, government-owned VRT, gave the agency access to the live broadcasts of five prime-time shows, including political, sports and entertainment programming.
The five- to 10-second interruptions, which took place for three days over a weekend in December, were filmed and later broadcast as a commercial that explained who was behind the events and why.
Mortier admits the agency wasn’t sure how well the idea would work. “It was live, so we only had one shot,” he says. “We had to cast a little boy who wasn’t afraid to interrupt live television recordings. Not easy. But Gaetan did it with a lot of flair.”
The work stirred the curiosity of the Belgian public, and by the time Monday morning rolled around the media was buzzing about the TV oddity. The radio station soon explained it was behind the stunt, as did the TV programs, and the PSA ran for a few weeks after the fundraiser.
“It gave us the opportunity to tell this story one more time,” says Mortier.
Paul Woolmington, co-founder of Naked Communications in New York and a member of the Cannes Titanium jury this year, says the panel was impressed with the simplicity and inventiveness of the program. “I love the idea that something so taken for granted and universal could be hijacked in such a provocative and relevant way,” he says. “The idea and execution is so simple and brilliant, but finding the right person with vision and authority to make it happen is very difficult. Anyone tried to get through to Rupert recently?”
The effort raised 3.3 million euros, with 1 million euros donated by the Belgian government. For a country of 10 million people, it’s an impressive figure, notes Mortier, particularly since the initiative was broadcast only in Belgium’s Flanders region, the Flemish part of the country.