I had a chance to visit Tom Morton at the New York office of RGA to dig into all he and his team have learned about biases through their work on the Ad Council’s Love Has No Labels campaigns. I use the plural because the RGA team has continued to surprise people with new ways to get attention whether it be setting up life-sized x-ray machines to reveal true love, or hiring a pro-wrestler to remind us what makes America great.
Special thanks to Pete Karam at RGA who bailed me out of a production issue by taking the reigns in an on-site sound stage and recording the conversation between Tom and I. Appreciate it Pete.
Know someone who’d make a great guest on The Strategy Inside Everything? Ping me.
[00:00:23] Adam Pierno: All right, thank you so much. All right, welcome back to another episode of The Strategy Inside Everything. I’m really excited today. This is probably going to be the best sounding episode of this show that has ever been produced because Pete is here helping me. We’re at R/GA and I’m here talking to Tom Morton.
[00:00:42] Tom Morton: Hey there.
[00:00:43] Adam: Tom, how are you today?
[00:00:44] Tom: I’m terrific thank you, Adam.
[00:00:46] Adam: You greeted me with some delicious coffee, and I’m really grateful for that. You said it was above average coffee and you weren’t lying. It’s really good.
[00:00:54] Tom: British understatement.
[00:00:55] Adam: [laughs] You delivered. Tell people just a little bit about, for the people who don’t know, who you are and what you’ve been. Just give them a quick background on what you do here at R/GA.
[00:01:05] Tom: Sure. My business card says SVP Strategy US, which basically means I’m running the strategy discipline across R/GAs New York office and it’s six US offices with my partner Jess Greenwood.
[00:01:19] Adam: Oh that’s amazing. I just got a quick tour of the place. That looks like a sprawling job. Is it as wide ranging as I imagine?
[00:01:29] Tom: Well, New York’s a bit of an aircraft carrier. There’s about 700 people here. Then we have six offices around the US. We’ve got two in LA, San Francisco, Portland, Austin, and Chicago, all representing, all doing their own flavors of strategy in their connected work.
[00:01:43] Adam: Does that put you on planes a lot, or are you mostly able to drive it from here?
[00:01:48] Tom: I wish it put me on more planes. I think the truth is you can still do so much more face-to-face and in contact with people, but we’ve learnt to become very socially dependent on the Zoom Calls here.
[00:01:58] Adam: Yes. I guess it’s a blessing and a curse how well technology works. We were just talking about the last mile. It gets you so close but, yes, there’s something about that face-to-face that we’re having now, versus all the Twitter back and forth, that we’ve had up until now.
[00:02:11] Tom: Absolutely. I do have a conspiracy theory that both Zoom Calls and Google Docs are actually the secret that’s going to make the American workplace more family friendly.
[00:02:22] Adam: You think so?
[00:02:23] Tom: I think it’s possible, yes, because the idea that you can go home and still work.
[00:02:29] Adam: And still be connected to everybody.
[00:02:30] Tom: Absolutely. It’s still useful, that pulling a late night doesn’t mean being in the building away from the family anymore.
[00:02:36] Adam: That’s true. We’ve found that. We do our share of Zoom Calls and Hangouts and then everybody working in one doc, versus what you used to have to do, putting a slideshow together and everybody can be on there throwing in slides, or editing it, in real time. I think you’re right. It makes it a little easier.
[00:02:51] Tom: Yes, it’s hard to be an auteur in that situation.
[00:02:54] Adam: There isn’t that anymore is there?
[00:02:54] Tom: No.
[00:02:55] Adam: Do you have that here? I saw the awards trophies. I saw the shelves full of trophies. Do you still have that auteur?
[00:03:06] Tom: I think what we’re trying to create here is a culture that is very high on creativity, but relatively low on the individual auteur lone genius who’s responsible for everything. I think the truth is because the place is rooted in film production, then in design and technology, they tend to be disciplines that are crazy disciplines that are more collaborative.
[00:03:27] Adam: Yes, much more team oriented.
[00:03:28] Tom: Yes, absolutely. Then a lot of our greatest hits in recent years, like the Nike Fuelband, have been things that have taken lots of people lots of different disciplines. Yes, it’s hard to be a tortured in lone genius.
[00:03:42] Adam: No, especially you use the phrase connected world. Everything you guys are making here, the stuff we’re making is all complicated. It’s not like making a poster, where one person could just sit down and design it, and craft it, and do it. There’s so many people that have to touch it and make it make sense.
[00:03:58] Tom: Yes. Absolutely and contribute. I don’t think this is about getting into a debate about individual creative vision versus bureaucracy. I think it’s just a reality of it takes lots of people to make something great. It takes lots of people to make something work.
[00:04:14] Adam: Yes, and my favorite thing is someone that’s a developer adding an insight about the end user that you didn’t ask for, you didn’t expect it, but they know something through the code or through their job, or through their own experience that says, “Yes, but this should be designed like this. This GUI should look different than what you guys are proposing because I’ve had this experience.”
[00:04:33] Tom: It has to be a culture of expertise. It has to be a culture of craft. Back in the day, the companies here, R/GA, has a lot of beliefs about the Bauhaus School and the whole culture that you could train people in individual artistic disciplines, then they’d learn to work together and cross pollinate their craft, still runs really deep in here.
[00:05:00] Adam: You must have come from traditional agencies.
[00:05:04] Tom: Yes, absolutely. I wasn’t born here, yes. My first 10 years in England was spent at the agencies that later became Adam and Eve.
[00:05:16] Adam: Oh, okay.
[00:05:17] Tom: Yes, I learned my craft there.
[00:05:19] Adam: Yes. That’s awesome. Well, it sounds like we’re making small talk, but we’re actually not making small talk. We’ve already started our discussion. What I wanted to talk to you about was the strategy behind overcoming bias. You’ve done some amazing work that’s been celebrated. I wanted to pick your brain on what you learned, any research that you guys did, or just the work that you did to get the strategy ready for that fantastic campaign. If you want, you can give people a little bit of background on it, if they’re not familiar with the work.
[00:05:52] Tom: Absolutely.
[00:05:52] Adam: I’ll link to it obviously.
[00:05:54] Tom: Sure. One of the things that we’re proudest of here at R/GA is our work for the Ad Council. We created an anti-bias platform for them called ‘Love Has No Labels’ which is played out in everything from t-shirt and stunts to films over the last four years. It’s had a terrific impact on popular culture.
[00:06:14] Adam: It’s amazing that John Cena’s stuff is like- I can’t get over, each time I watch it or show it, how well timed it is. Speaking back to craft and collaboration, the timing and what that’s set must have looked like- It wasn’t a set, right? It was an actual street.
[00:06:32] Tom: It was an actual street. Let’s wind back a little and talk about the, if you like, the insight behind the work because unpacking bias is a very difficult thing to do. It’s often been commented that slavery was the original sin of American culture, and that bias and the imperative to tackle bias run incredibly deep in American culture. I tread lightly here as an outsider.
[00:07:02] Adam: That’s why I thought you’d be interesting to talk about this, because you’ve done the work and you have an outsider perspective. It must be a very unique take on it that got to this great work.
[00:07:13] Tom: Sure. Let’s talk about the background to it, and I should credit all the strategists, and the writers, and the designers, who have worked on this over the years. Really what this comes down to, is how do you unpack the issue of bias? I think that the paradox you start with is that if you speak to anyone from a minority background, or anyone who is LGBT they will talk to you about the bias and the discrimination that they felt, a clear majority of minority and LGBT people have experienced bias in everyday life.
[00:07:54] Adam: Right. I mean daily right.
[00:07:56] Tom: Absolutely, and that’s what we need to overcome. At the same time if you stop people on the street, 90% of people would say that they have no bias, they have no prejudice. Somewhat you have to reconcile these two truths.
[00:08:10] Adam: It’s the same thing as asking people if they’re good drivers, right? 90% of people say that while they’re flipping off to somebody who’s just cut them off.
[00:08:17] Tom: Completely.
[00:08:17] Adam: Yes.
[00:08:18] Tom: What it comes down to is the phenomena of unconscious bias, and the assumptions that you might be making, that end up prejudicing or affecting someone. The truth is with our campaign, we can’t affect the extremists, the people that are truly driven by hate. What we can do is we can work in the margin with that swing vote, the political term would be the swing voter audience.
[00:08:46] Adam: The middle ground.
[00:08:47] Tom: Absolutely, yes, who don’t believe themselves to be biased, but may accidentally be displaying some unconscious bias that leads to a bad outcome for a person. We realize that unconscious bias is going to be the thing that we’re going to have to tackle. Then it comes on to, well how do you tackle that? Because it’s very easy to be accusatory, call someone out as a bad person. It’s also very easy creatively to center in on the evil of bias and on the negativity of it.
[00:09:18] Adam: Creatively that would be the place that you might jump to that insight like, “Well that’s wrong, let’s make a campaign that attacks it in some way, but that’s not going to help anybody. Anybody that needs that message is going to receive that message.
[00:09:30] Tom: Absolutely, and the sorry truth is award shows historically we’re littered with scam double page ads telling you that bigotry was bad, that I don’t think it had any impact on the wider culture or didn’t actually work to change anyone’s opinion which is ultimately the purpose of doing this. The choice we’ve made is that really we were going to combat bias with love, and that if you really want to disarm people, you remind them of our common humanity. You flood popular culture with love. You get other people to see the good in others, and basically, you use your creative platform to pick at our common humanity and the sweet spots where we can see the humanity in others. That became the overall principle. Basically, we were going to combat unconscious bias through flooding culture with love. That’s where you use as an umbrella situation but then, I think what made our work successful was we were then extremely choiceful about where we showed up, the issues that we spoke to and exactly how we pinpointed this because this is like a very general theme.
[00:10:44] Adam: You didn’t just turn it into a bunch of posters and and a campaign. You were very thoughtful about how you mixed the context of the message where it was going to live and what the exact subject matter was at that time.
[00:10:55] Tom: Absolutely. The first time we went public with the campaign was the beginning of 2015, and it was a very charged time politically because it was the time at which the US Supreme Court was about to review the case that was going to decide on the legality of gay marriage. If you like, the common theme in popular culture was whose relationship is legitimate, and so we decided that we’d begin that conversation on Valentine’s day, and we’d confront peoples bias literally by showing them– we’d put a screen up in Santa Monica. There was like an x-ray screen. Two people could walk behind it. You’d see they loved each other because they were holding hands or hugging. You had no idea who was behind it. You didn’t know if it was it an inter-racial couple, was it a gay couple?
[00:11:50] Adam: That work is powerful. It just two humans.
[00:11:53] Tom: Yes, and what it did, it just disarmed people, because it allowed people to see common humanity, and it stopped people from judging what relationship was legitimate, what love we were going to permit.
[00:12:09] Adam: But strategically what got executed so well is, it’s not saying it’s right or wrong. The work in itself is really not making a moral judgment in any case. Its just showing you, hey heads up, you have an opinion on this and you didn’t even realize it, or you wouldn’t have admitted it if we told you right now.
[00:12:29] Tom: Absolutely, and as a result it disarms you. And that was really important and I think what we’ve always tried to do is every year we’ve tried to find what is another opportunity where we might disarm people. What would be a great time to speak?
[00:12:52] Adam: There’s nothing going on right now in the world that would merit this conversation though, right?
[00:12:57] Tom: Absolutely. Let’s wind it back because then, the next year obviously 2016 was a particularly polarizing time in politics, and the real issue around love and bias was really who gets to be an American, who gets to be– if 2015 was a year of whose love gets to be legitimate, it was almost like whose citizenship, whose place in the country.
[00:13:24] Adam: Whose a real American and who is not.
[00:13:27] Tom: Absolutely. That was something we chose, and again its all about disarming and we made a bunch of choices. Firstly, we thought if you’re going to talk about this, you’re going to need somebody who can disarm, who can actually speak to both sides of the crowd. John Cena was actually perfect for this because-
[00:13:47] Adam: That’s an amazing casting partner.
[00:13:49] Tom: Completely. He’s a terrific wrestler, he’s an action hero. He’s the man who actually announced on American television about the death of Osama Bin Laden. He could not be more alpha and red-blooded, but also he’s a terrific philanthropist, he’s a great activist for children and he’s the least biased, the most loving person you could meet. He became an extraordinary spokesman. Firstly, choosing a spokesman.
Secondly, choosing an issue. Let’s all talk about what actually counts as being an American, and actually unpacking the sheer multiplicity and diversity of who lives in this country. We’re challenging people with the issue that if you love the country you need to love the people of the country.
But then the choices went even further. We launched that particular campaign on July 4th because its a very patriotic time. It’s also at a time when patriotism is a very uniting force.
[00:14:50] Adam: We all salute the flag on that day.
[00:14:51] Tom: We all salute the flag. Anyone standing under the flag is welcome, absolutely. We also made a lot of executional choices. The film we shot was in a little town of Florida called Ybor City, it has one of the most diverse populations in America. It was actually built by immigrants. It was built by Haitians and by Italians. It’s always been, strangely enough, its always been this historic model of diversity. It looks like every town in America. It looks-
[00:15:25] Adam: That’s what’s amazing, no one would ask for it.
[00:15:26] Tom: -it looks like the Truman Show, but it was built by the Rainbow Nation.
[00:15:31] Adam: It’s like they were funneling their vision of what ideal ruck all America would be. They were all creating it together but looks like downtown USA.
[00:15:40] Tom: Absolutely yes. Something everyone can relate to. Then what John Cena also allows you to do, he allows you to talk to other audiences. He brings them a terrific social media footprint. He brings them the wrestling media empire, and one of the important things we found was we had tens of millions of views of his message that came from sites like, wrestling sites, John Cena’s’ own channel. From Fox News website.
[00:16:13]Adam: Was that part of the casting decision, or was that a lucky strike after the campaign started and he started putting it out there on his platform, or was that just like, “Oh that’s-”
[00:16:25] Tom: It was part of the decision that made him perfect. I think the truth is now when you partner with a celebrity, one of the things a lot of celebrities bring with them is a social media footprint, and it’s part of the pre-quid pro quo. Again, it comes down to things that you think of as creative or executional choices actually you can make them strategically because that message about who is an American, who should we consider as a real American. We could have got like a great late night HBO comedians do that. We could have got a member of the cast of Girls to do that.
[00:16:53] Adam: You could have had an Oprah do it.
[00:16:54] Tom: Completely yes.
[00:16:55] Adam: But it’s very expected.
[00:16:57] Tom: Absolutely. It would have preached to the choir, and the entire job here is reach. I think there’s an issue that we haven’t stressed to you right now which is that we assume YouTube views is a success. The truth is that for 99.9% of campaigns they’re a media metric. They’re an intermediate step towards success. This is one of those rare situations where views are important because we have very little paid media and actual success is putting our story in front of people who wouldn’t otherwise see it.
[00:17:31] Adam: That’s a place where people of all stripes can go see it.
[00:17:34] Tom: Absolutely, yes. And we are really into baseball now, is part of the effect in the story. The Love has no Label campaign. That the sheer reach in view count means that millions of people that wouldn’t have otherwise thought about this issue have seen it followed through, and being disarmed and confounded.
[00:17:56] Adam: That’s what the work was meant to do. I wanted to ask you about locations. You brought up the town in Florida where it was shot. We’re here in New York, so I’ve been experiencing the melting pot of New York. Did you do research around the country, have you talked to people or gotten feedback from people in other parts of the country or small towns?
I’m just wondering what feedback you’ve gotten from, I think inside the Ad community we can hold this up and say, this is amazing work and for all the reasons we just said and I think in major metros, blue states theoretically we say, oh yes that’s work, I get it. It’s what I believe in. I’m wondering, as you were doing research, ether pre or post, just trying to figure out the strategy from you. Before the campaign even launched into year two, had you reached out into other parts of the country, did you do any of that, or is that mostly common sense and attacking it just from a central viewpoint?
[00:18:59] Tom: Absolutely. I think just as the campaign only works if it reaches people that are outside the bubble, the strategy only works if it learns from people outside the bubble. We are out in Missouri, we were down in Alabama running focus groups and interviewing people just to understand not only their reactions to previous work but actually their experience of bias and how they process it. It’s part of the great thing about our partnership with the Ad Council is because they’re a stakeholder organization. They have to show success, they have to understand how this works, and so I think one of the most interesting things we do are the research tours of the Heartland America to understand how this issue plays out for real.
[00:19:41] Adam: So valuable.
[00:19:42] Tom: Totally.
[00:19:43] Adam: So did you do pre and post for effectiveness. Were you measuring change in attitude or?
[00:19:51] Tom: We run surveys for the changes in attitude, and we do focus group tours to understand how the issue plays out and understand how we can sharpen our work for the next round.
[00:20:01] Adam: You segued directly into my next question. When an agency works with a brand for example for three, four, five years, especially great brands, it becomes a sense of the creative team or the front-end team really wanting to one-up themselves. Last year, we did A work. This year, we want to do A+ work. We won this award, we want to win those awards. Do you think about that strategically for this? The work has been so stellar. The insights are so sharp. Do you feel that challenge as you’re approaching the next year’s campaign?
[00:20:38] Tom: Absolutely. I think what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to understand how it really works rather than trying to create a formula. I think it can be very tempting as a strategist to think that you’ve decoded the magic formula of how something works. You have to keep it real about how was this really created and how do the public really receive it. A partnership with Kris and Eric, the executive creative directors who oversee it, is absolutely critical because it’s just unwise to tell people that here’s how the idea you created works. Trying to make something formulaic because–
[00:21:21] Adam: Who are we going to get to walk down the street this year?
[00:21:23] Tom: Absolutely, because it’s not like say like a British department store’s holiday season campaign that everyone can look forward to. We’re still campaigning and crusading. We’re still thinking about what’s the story people need, not so much how do we repeat it so everyone gets the same warm glow. It’s almost the opposite, it’s who needs to see this story next.
[00:21:46] Adam: What’s the new mechanism we can use to disarm it, however, is appropriate to the insight.
[00:21:51] Tom: Absolutely, yes. You also you start thinking about the media choices because we’re very lucky with the Ad Council. We have a little bit of donated media but we’re working off almost entirely from goodwill and from people sharing it, so you start thinking through the channels, what’s the best way to get in front of people.
[00:22:12] Adam: You have to be your own media strategist on getting free media, getting something people are going to spin out to other–
[00:22:18] Tom: Absolutely, yes because it’s very easy to get distressed inventory from media owners. What we really want–
[00:22:25] Adam: 15s at 3:00 AM. Those are awesome, very helpful.
[00:22:28] Tom: Yes.
[00:22:29] Adam: From a media perspective then, you worked with a spokesperson who turned out to be just a media, he just exploded at the exact right time for you and was very willing, very generous, does that become a trap that you’re trying to partner with someone again or is that you don’t worry about that until there’s an idea that’s based on a new insight?
[00:22:51] Tom: Well, John Cena was a one-round of celebrity work that we did. In 2015, we used an x-ray machine to show people the humans behind the stereotypes, then John Cena came. Then, we ran a campaign called Fans of Love which we put a kiss cam at a massive football game down in Florida. Again, going to a football game in the deep south and messing with the kiss-cam it’s certainly worth getting outside the bubble.
[00:23:20] Adam: That’s a risky move.
[00:23:21] Tom: Yes, absolutely. Again, there’s no celebrity involvement but the things you had repeatedly well, firstly, you went to a flash point area, you went to an event where you might be able to disarm people because there’s nothing more disarming than the kiss-cam, and you also you find yourself with a partner who’s got their own media footprint. The football community was terrific as a partner there.
[00:23:51] Adam: They were receptive to that?
[00:23:53] Tom: Yes.
[00:23:54] Adam: That’s pretty awesome. What was the reception like in that stadium?
[00:23:57] Tom: It was terrific, it was great. This all comes down to the fact that the average person does not see themselves as biased. The average person can be disarmed by just straight-up signs of love and devotion.
[00:24:14] Adam: We work with an anti-bullying program that’s state-run, and we see this bystander effect take place where it’s almost like if you see two people, somebody’s getting bullied or there’s a fight or something, if there’s a group, it’s like the bigger the group, the more likely you are to actually cheer versus help break it up or protect the person who’s getting bullied or something. Is their similar action and bias where it’s, when you say a football stadium, I start to think, “Well, if those people really didn’t like what was on that kiss-cam. They could start booing or going crazy or chucking things because there’s a crowd effect, but the reaction didn’t get that way.
[00:24:58] Tom: The reaction was very positive. Again, it comes down to disarming people. Everyone appreciates a surprise and a rug pull.
[00:25:07] Adam: Presenting it in a way that was disarming and engaging.
[00:25:08] Tom: Yes, absolutely. Yes, the guy and the girl next to each other, the kiss-cam zooms in, the guy actually turns to the guy next to him and it turns out they’re the couple. It’s a classic way of building drama and comedy, you disarm.
[00:25:23] Adam: Yes, you just you play with the expectation.
[00:25:25] Tom: Absolutely.
[00:25:26] Adam: What is next strategically? I’m sure you can’t talk about any work that’s being developed but given where we are in political America right now and building a wall and testing prototypes that can’t be climbed over as we speak, is America reacting to the campaign? There’s some people that are seeing the work and saying, “Right on, I get it,” but clearly, there’s a division. Are you leveraging any of that for the next round of work?
[00:25:59] Tom: Well, let’s talk about how people are reacting to it. The truth is since the campaign ran, when surveyed people incidences of bias are falling. We also saw, this is a very strange metric, is one of the few campaigns in social media history that has been shared more than it’s been liked which working with the data scientists at YouTube, they said, “This is usually an indicator of something that speaks to people very deeply and basically speaks for them and it’s something that people can share, that even if they can’t speak up, they can share something, it becomes their voice.
We have indications of it working like that. It also has terrific awareness for a public service campaign. People recognize the stamp. Again, if we’re talking about crowd effect, having a recognized symbol of non-bias that people can wear and gather around is important. When it comes to what’s next, I’m not going to give anything away, but it all becomes about the search for common humanity because that’s always been the case.
[00:27:11] Adam: That’s your playground.
[00:27:12] Tom: Absolutely, whether it was the fourth of July where everyone gets to be an American, or the kiss-cam everyone gets to show their love, what we’re doing strategically is we’re looking for where is the next place where our common humanity and our common empathy can play out.
[00:27:31] Adam: That’s awesome. Now the insight just gets to roll and you get to look for the right opportunity and then sharpen it onto that once you get there. Well, that’s excellent insight on that campaign and on the work that you did. I really appreciate your time. Thanks for making time. Pete, thanks for making the sound pretty much better than every episode of this show put together.