Q&A: Former Ad Exec Behind ‘Chasing Coral’ Says the Ad World Can Help Solve Climate Change

Richard Vevers on gaining support through positive messaging

Vevers chatted with Adweek about what agencies can to do help people understand issues affecting the ocean.
Courtesy of Chasing Coral

Richard Vevers worked in agencies for 10 years—shops in London and Australia including Proximity, Publicis and IMP—before he’d had enough. He left to become an underwater photographer and shortly thereafter ended up founding a not-for-profit organization called The Ocean Agency. Vevers stars in a new documentary, Chasing Coral, which won the Sundance Audience Award for U.S. documentaries in January and debuted on Netflix in mid-July.

He recently sat down with Adweek in New York during a press tour for the film to chat about what agencies can to do help people understand issues affecting the ocean.

Adweek: How do you go from working in the ad world to working on coral conservation?
Richard Vevers: You make a career choice after you’ve been in advertising for 10 years. I’m either in this for the duration or it suddenly gets to be too much. For me, it got to be too much. I’d had a couple of all-nighters and then was having a big debate about toilet roll and realized: no, that’s it for me. I’m out. … I decided to do a complete sea change, please excuse the pun, and gave it all up to become an underwater photographer. That led to this big journey that I’ve been on, especially over the last five years. I set up a not-for-profit organization six years ago called The Ocean Agency. One of the biggest issues with the ocean is that it’s out of sight and out of mind so lots and lots of issues going on but no one seems to know about them. I saw that as a communication challenge more than anything else. Wouldn’t it be fun to invent a way of revealing the oceans? We then approached Google and designed a camera to take Google Street View underwater.

That’s a big undertaking. How did you get Google on board?
We approached Google, and they said, “Great concept, but we’ve got quite a bit on our plate at the moment. You need to go and find a partner and develop this.” We then realized that with Google as a partner, this was a great sponsorship opportunity. We met with a company called Catlin—they’ve since changed the name to XL Catlin—and we managed to persuade them to sponsor the project, the build of the camera, etc. They loved the idea, but they wanted it related to risk to their business, and they wanted it based in science. That’s when we approached the scientists with the camera and said, “What can we do in terms of science?” They said the camera could actually revolutionize the study of coral reefs.

Traditionally what they do is have a diver in a square made out of plastic put in on the reef—they go down and take a photograph. Then you can do about 50 of these in a dive, and then you spend the next day, two days analyzing that data. It’s hugely expensive and time consuming. [The new camera we designed] could do it at about 10 times the speed. [The scientists] then went, “Oh, this means we can do really large-scale surveys.” We then, with our partner XL Catlin, said, “Let’s do a survey of the Great Barrier Reef. Let’s do the most comprehensive survey that’s ever been done.”

Again, massive undertaking. What happened next?
We went to 32 different reefs on the Great Barrier Reef within about a six-month period and did that survey. It was such a success, not only in terms of the science but also the media, that we then went on to do a global survey of the coral reefs, but also at the same time doing Google underwater street view. So we allowed everyone to be able to explore the oceans. Even on the first day, more people went virtual diving than have ever been diving in history. That’s the power of having Google as a partner.

That was a few years ago, back in 2012. What was the reception like?
I think having the advertising background really made all the difference. [It impacted] how we designed the camera, [which] was about media appeal, it wasn’t just the scientific piece. [It was about] how do we get six pages in Time magazine? We actually got about 10,000 media articles, and the advertising was valued at about $200 million dollars based on PR.

[This scientific survey] is the first time that we have a standardized baseline for coral reefs, which is all paid for out of the advertising spend that [XL Catlin] would’ve spent on some other sponsorship. Essentially, we did a global survey of coral reefs for free and returned a better ROI for the investor, which is a great model for science.

Though we did have to invent some fairly cool technology because we have too much data—we have a million images, which would’ve taken a scientist about 50 years to analyze. So we needed image recognition and partnered up with the University of California Berkeley to do image recognition with the same accuracy of a marine biologist looking at it.

So, how do you go from doing an underwater version of Google Street View to following the biggest coral bleaching event in history?
We were about halfway through that survey when the third global bleaching event started. Essentially coral reefs are on the front line of climate change. A two-degree rise in global temperatures means we will lose all coral reefs. With the one degree that we’ve already had in the system we’ve seen massive die-offs of coral reefs. We’ve lost 49 percent of the Great Barrier Reef over the last two years and that’s the scale of the issue.

So, we found ourselves in this unique position of having the right technology at the right time with the right partners to follow this event. No one has ever been able to do this before. We then went off around the world documenting the bleaching event. That was really where we approached Jeff Orlowski after seeing his film Chasing Ice, which was about the documentation of glacial trends due to the climate. He followed us for the last three years as we documented the bleaching event and we invented new photography, time-lapse photography, etc., and so that film is now out on Netflix.

Unfortunately we are in a situation where coral reefs are being massively affected by climate change. We’ve got 20 to 30 years of heating already in the pipeline. So, we know we are going to lose about 90 percent of the coral reefs if we stop all emissions. If we stick to the Paris agreement, we’ll lose about 90 percent of the coral reefs. That’s the best-case scenario now. So, what we urgently need to do is to refocus our efforts to make sure that we are factoring in the risk of climate change into our plans.

How do you get people motivated to want to help when, as you’re saying, the best-case scenario is that we lose 90 percent of the coral reefs?
During the filming of [Chasing Coral], we came up with the idea that there hasn’t been a plan [to save coral reefs] that’s factored in climate change on a global scale. There are lots of great regional initiatives. … Because of the projects we were working on, we’ve been able to speak to the scientists, and we came up with a project called 50 Reefs.

What’s that?
50 Reefs is a project where what we’re doing is looking for the reefs that are the least vulnerable to climate change, the 10 percent that can survive. We’re also looking at the reefs that are the most important in terms of repopulating other reefs. Then we have this geographical representation [of the reefs], and we create this algorithm that then spits out the 50 reefs that will be critical in terms of the long-term future of reefs. Then what we do is use that in terms of capitalizing the investment we need, and communication is the backbone to get that. It’s also a way of bolstering conservation science efforts in those key sites and it’s a way of focusing our efforts during this critical period of time.

Really it’s what we do in the next five years, which will dictate the future of reefs, in my view. We’ve had amazing support from philanthropists in the U.S., so Bloomberg Philanthropies, Tiffany and Co. Foundation and also the Paul G. Allen foundation. We’ll have our 50 reefs later this year in October, and then it’s all go with as much communication as we possibly can. For me, having that communication background makes such a huge difference.

It makes sense that philanthropic organizations would be involved. Are you looking to talk to agencies, too?
Climate change has always been communicated incredibly badly, in my view. The communication industry hasn’t been engaged properly. Yes, they’ve been engaged from the other side, but a lot of the important messages have never been communicated. It’s all about the ocean; 93 percent of the heat from climate change is absorbed by the ocean, and that’s our life-support system which basically controls everything from the climate to the weather to our food supply, our water supply, our air supply—it’s about the ocean. That hasn’t been communicated in an effective way, so people don’t understand the problem in the first place, and they also don’t understand solution. People think the solution is difficult … when really it’s such a great opportunity. You look at every piece of climate-change action, and it’s about jobs, creating money, saving money, becoming healthier, getting rid of pollution, greenifying cities. It’s all good news stories, and it just hasn’t been delivered that way.

That’s the big opportunity to engage the advertising industry and the communication industry to be able to tell this story properly in a big way. We’re getting that momentum, but the stories haven’t been told well enough. … You look at the current administration, and it has sparked so much interest in climate and action so the cities are collaborating, the Bloomberg initiative of getting cities to pledge to meet the Paris agreement. You’re seeing more action as a result of the inaction at the federal level than if we’d had the status quo.

How do we fix the way we’re communicating climate change?
We’ve almost got the balance wrong because it’s all scaremongering. You look at the great campaigns on tobacco and smoking. There’s an element of: OK, this is what [tobacco and smoking] actually does. It is likely to kill you. But there’s also: this is how you save money. There are different elements of the campaign. The problem with climate change is that we’re telling all of the scaremongering facts without telling how the solution is really positive for everyone. It will bring in money and give you a job, and let’s just do it. It’s not a difficult decision here.

Are you going to do a campaign and involve agencies when you launch the 50 Reefs project?
We will be doing a big campaign around the 50 Reefs when we have that list. … We need to catalyze support for the protection of those key sites, and we want to involve people. We’re doing some big call-outs, and we need the communication industry involved in that. That’s about protecting reefs on a local basis from the usual issues like fishing and pollution and all the things that normally affect reefs then we’ve got climate change on top. So that’s the 50 Reef project, but then, we want to use that to actually get action on climate, actually show people what is happening to our planet because of climate change. People think climate change is something in the future, but we’ve got the proof that it is here and now. We’ve got over 1 million images, videos, 360s, the works. What I want to do is try and get support from the communication industry in getting these messages out in a positive, fun, exciting way.

Seems hard to be positive about losing 90 percent of the world’s coral reefs. 
Think about what happened with humpback whales. We managed to hunt them down to 4 percent. Now they’re back up to 65 percent of their normal numbers. Nature bounces back as long as we save enough. That’s what we’ve got to do with coral reefs. We’ve got to stabilize the climate system by sticking to the Paris agreement, and we need to save enough so it can bounce back over time. Within my lifetime, I think we’ll have gone from pristine reefs around the world to less than 10 percent to reefs bouncing back because we’ve stabilized the system. It should be all good news stories about reefs at that stage. What we need is positivity around the messaging for climate, and the advertising industry holds the secret.