Six Lessons Alfonso Cuarón Wants Marketers to Learn About Supporting Causes

With Roma, the filmmaker showed the power of forging long-term alliances for advocacy

Alfonso Cuarón spoke at this year's Cannes Lions in support of building nonprofit partnerships that can pick up where inspiring content leaves off.
Getty Images

CANNES, France—No topic was more prevalent at this year’s Cannes Lions than cause marketing, but somewhat ironically, the most successful campaign on that front was not one that came away with any Lions. That’s because it had already received its own honors, specifically in the form of two Golden Globes and three Oscars.

Roma, the 2018 film from visionary director Alfonso Cuarón, was both a heart-wrenchingly powerful narrative and a tremendously effective feat of advocacy, helping propel support for domestic workers who often fall outside the social safety net in almost all countries. On a site created in partnership with the film, the National Domestic Workers Alliance has rallied support from those touched by the film’s story of Cleo, an indigenous maid who lives with an affluent family in Mexico City. Of the 2.5 million domestic workers in the U.S., the site says, 65% have no health insurance and 70% make less than $13 per hour.

The film has already been credited with helping advance sweeping reforms protecting the rights of domestic workers in Mexico, where such legislation had long been stalled by several issues, including cultural taboos around discussing race and class. Similar legislation has been proposed in the United States, where domestic workers have been omitted from key laws like the National Labor Relations Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Cuarón, who based the movie on the life of his own childhood caregiver, now hopes to encourage marketers and filmmakers to take a similar approach of creating content that’s compelling on its own but also ignites a chain reaction of civic engagement—turning impassioned audiences into an army marching toward positive change.

“It’s not that you insert social action into your strategy,” he told Adweek in a conversation after his panel at Cannes. “Social action is the strategy. And that’s a big difference.”

To help marketers understand the difference between authentically supporting a cause versus simply touting two-dimensional gestures of advocacy, Cuarón shared six insights that will help marketers find the balance of commercial success and advancement of a cause:

1. Inspire first

Supporting a cause through your content isn’t about teaching audiences the litany of things wrong with a current system. Cuarón says you must focus on capturing hearts and imaginations by first telling a relatable story.

If you jump to activism too quickly without first inspiring empathy, he says, your project will be a non-starter. Roma, for example, succeeded on both fronts by being a captivating story first and then planting the seeds of advocacy through its portrayal of inequality.

"You don't need to come with a hammer telling people what to do. It's about, first of all, inspiring."
Alfonso Cuarón

“You don’t need to come with a hammer telling people what to do,” Cuarón says. “It’s about, first of all, inspiring.”

Participant Media, the cause-oriented production company that Cuarón worked with on Roma, shares his focus on putting storytelling at the forefront of any project. But both the filmmaker and production company were keenly aware of the importance of having a long-term partnership baked into the process from Day 1.

“The movie had to capture hearts and minds. Once the audience experiences the movie and has that emotional reaction, you can allow them to start thinking about what they want to do,” says David Linde, CEO of Participant Media. “You’re inspiring, you’re empowering people, then you’re connecting them to scale. That’s where the opportunity exists, is to scale up what an organization is doing.”

2. Stay awake to the world around you

From Hollywood executives to senior advertising creatives, it’s easy for anyone in a position of privilege to lose sight of the complex issues facing the wider world. That disconnect, Cuarón says, is often to blame for the inauthentic and ineffective cause marketing efforts perpetuated by brands and content creators.

Supporting a cause as a business relationship first requires the empathy and awareness to simply be aware of the issue’s existence and understand its impact on lives around the world.

“Don’t seek a transaction. Get involved,” Cuarón says. “First of all, be a bit aware of what’s going on in the world and see what touches you. That’s the first thing. Part of the problem is a lot of executives are not aware of what’s going on in the world.”

There are countless issues that could benefit from any marketer’s support, but Cuarón says the key to helping in an authentic way is to latch onto efforts that tug at your own heart and leave you wishing you could do more to effect change.

“What touches you? Where do you think you can make a difference?” he says. “Then you can engage.”

3. Make sure your cause comes from a place of personal passion

Cause marketing is an organizational approach, not the work of any one individual. But the reality is, a passionate cause doesn’t begin with consensus. It often starts with the vocal, tireless and personally invested efforts of a few core people.

Getty Images

Cuarón, along with those who came to Cannes in support of his efforts with Roma, says this foundational passion for an issue is a vital distinction between authenticity and opportunism.

“You have to have a conviction about that issue in your life. You can’t just use it. You can’t just say, ‘This trend is happening, let’s use it and be helpful while we sell our product,'” he says. “Because that’s not going to work. It’s about a conviction that you have from the creative moment. You cannot create a campaign that is going to inspire with authenticity if you don’t believe in it from the get-go.”

Colleen DeCourcy, co-president of agency Wieden + Kennedy, joined Cuarón on stage at Cannes and for his conversation with Adweek after their presentation. She said that her agency—which is also working on a new campaign to advance Cuarón’s domestic worker advocacy after Roma—has repeatedly seen the impact that one or two passionate staffers can have through their tenacity and evangelism on a cause.

“The joke at Wieden + Kennedy is the people who are the most successful at the agency are the ones who steal the platform to do something they care about,” DeCourcy says. “We have people who care very deeply about the state of female athletes. [Art director Emma Barnett], the woman who did ‘Dream Crazier,’ that’s a real ongoing passion of hers. When you don’t have an honest concern and connection to the issue, the work is ineffective.”

4. Form a long-term alliance, not a partnership of convenience

Of all Cuarón’s advice shared at the Cannes Lions, no point was more critical than this: You must form enduring partnerships, not fleeting collaborations around causes.

Ai-jen Poo, executive director,
Domestic Workers Alliance

With Roma, Cuarón aligned early with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which has long advocated for better benefits, safeguards and regulations when it comes to domestic workers.

But that connection went beyond Cuarón’s personal support of the organization. Participant Media, which produced the film, also maintained a strong connection to the nonprofit.

“Participant Media understands the life cycle of a film and the life cycle of advocacy,” says Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the Domestic Workers Alliance. “It’s two different cultures, two different arenas. It’s almost like the role of interpreter, bridging the two and helping us sync up the logic of our two stories so we can really leverage the moment.”

Looking back on his film career, Cuarón believes he could have been far more effective in sparking dialogue and action from his movies if he had forged such strong partnerships from the beginning of each project.

"If I had done [Children of Men] again, we would have started with alliances from the get-go. How is this film going to deal with the environment, with immigration?"
Alfonso Cuarón

For example, with 2006’s Children of Men, which showed a world where humans had been driven sterile by environmental stress, he created The Possibility of Hope, a follow-up documentary about the issues addressed in the film. But he now wishes he had done more on the front end of the production.

“With Children of Men, it’s a film where I really care about the subject,” he says. “I’m proud of the documentary we made, but it doesn’t go anywhere. If I had done this film again, we would have started with alliances from the get-go. How is this film going to deal with the environment, with immigration? Then you can be working on this as you’re doing the film.”

Alfonso Cuarón and Ai-jen Poo speak with Adweek at Cannes.
Photo courtesy of Wieden + Kennedy

5. Create conversation, then funnel it somewhere productive

Great movies (and ads, for that matter) have always sparked conversation, but the digital era has given such discussions a global amplification, and Cuarón believes content creators can harness this geyser of shared opinions in a way that creates focused action.

“The conversation is part of the experience,” he says. “Particularly if it’s a film that has something to say, there’s going to be a conversation. It’s as if it’s part of the creative experience, the conversation that follows. That always existed some way or the other, but with social media, it has exploded. The interesting thing is how you can funnel that conversation into the message of an organization that is doing great work.”

Having a dedicated advocacy partner embedded in the process makes it easier to plan these conversations and have resources ready for fans to engage with and share. Thanks to this approach with Roma, conversation around the rights of domestic workers has continued to build long after the movie’s premiere and awards cycle.

“It’s no longer about the movie,” says Participant Media CEO Linde.  The movie has had a very robust and beautiful life and will continue to exist. But what’s important about having these conversations is that the Roma effect can now be taken on by other organizations. What is going on around the social action campaign can be refueled, and the people out there have the opportunity to provide that fuel.”

From left, Colleen DeCourcy, Ai-jen Poo, Alfonso Cuarón and David Linde speak at the Cannes Lions.

6. Pass the mic

Influence, especially in Hollywood, can give you a powerful megaphone. But Cuarón says the limelight can create opportunities not just to espouse your own message but also to boost the voices of others.

Cuarón used his own influence in a very direct way to shift the spotlight onto Poo, executive director of the Domestic Workers Alliance, by bringing her with him on red carpet outings where the media would be clamoring to talk to him.

“For Roma, the first big awards ceremony was the Golden Globes, in which Ai-jen came with me to the red carpet,” he says. “We walked together. And every time people interviewed me, yes, I spoke generic things about Roma, but then I started talking about domestic workers. And I said, ‘I think Ai-jen can explain this better than me,’ and I’d pass the mic to Ai-jen. That way, whether or not they wanted to do it, they had to do it.”

Poo says this respectful, enduring partnership with Cuarón and Participant Media has had a stunning effect on the reach and potency of her group’s advocacy, along with that of like-minded organizations around the world.

“The film created this cultural moment, and our movement had already been planting seeds and moving legislation forward. The moment created more space in the public imagination for women we were trying to lift up,” she says. “We just opened that space and inserted solutions, and it propelled it forward because the space in the public imagination was open wide from an emotional place. It would have taken years for us to get to where we are now.”

Recommended videos