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.