When I traveled to Northern Uganda in the fall of 2014, I didn’t know what I was in for. My company had been working with organizations based out of Africa in a variety of countries over the last seven years. Northern Uganda was a region that we were new to; I had heard about the particular struggles, seen photos of the struggles, created fundraising materials that encouraged people to join up and address the issues. But while I “knew” all that was happening in there, I had also been around the block enough times to know that there are still some things that you don’t truly understand until your feet are firmly planted on the soil. To say the least, it was a sobering reality check when I arrived in Lira, Uganda. I was suddenly seeing life through the eyes of the people living there and those doing good work there. This shift in perspective has a tendency to change things and, for me and my company, it changed the way we thought and did work from then on.
How does a busy creative studio find the time to see the world from the client’s perspective—especially since that world is constantly changing? We all recognize the importance of getting into our clients’ heads, but how can we create the space to do that? We try to see how our clients see; we think that we “get it,” but we rarely have the opportunity to actually be in their world. At least that was my experience.
I began thinking about how I could offer my team and some of our favorite collaborators the opportunity to really become immersed in a client’s world. Walking in our client’s shoes might be out of our comfort zone, but I hoped the benefits would be worth it. We chose a nonprofit client for our first project. We were already used to helping them tell their stories in strategic ways—now we would actually become part of their story.
At the time we were working on a rebranding for Lifewater International, a nonprofit water development organization dedicated to effectively overcoming water poverty in vulnerable communities. We wanted to move beyond rebranding to gain a better understanding of what our strategic campaigns looked like from the client side. We were ready to feel the weight of our decisions upon a project’s actual success—or failure.
Lifewater sent me to Northern Uganda so I could see firsthand the work being done there. In addition to getting a better picture of the world water crisis, the work I saw transformed my views about what can be done and how healthy villages can be achieved. Lifewater needed to raise $40,000 to launch the first phase of their vision—this would be our immersion project.
My team got together with some of our frequent collaborators, including Brian MacDonald from Wonderkind Studios who agreed to partner with us. Together we created an event called Wheels4Water as the catalyst to get the information out and the vehicle to collect donations. We focused on Lifewater’s basic fundraising fact: For $40, you can give someone water for life. Together we would ride 1,000 miles; each mile would be sponsored for $40 and enable us to raise the $40,000 needed.
We planned to ride from the Atlantic Ocean (Boston) to Lake Michigan (Chicago) and filter our water from open-water sources along the way. More than just an event, we were seeking a better understanding of personal responsibility and impact, and we wanted to show how these campaigns (strategy, brand, social media, and so on) looked like from the client side.
The Wheels4Water team outlined the resources we would need to pull this off. We approached various partners and sponsors from the printing, paper, coding, and cycling industries. From these connections we began building our team, and we also enlisted the help of their local communities to raise awareness and support. We outlined a communication strategy for the months leading up to the ride through the six months after the ride, taking us through the end of the year.
Then we got to work. We created the brand, researched companies who might want to join us, and met with influential people wherever we could to share the vision. Part of our “pitch” was letting potential brand partners know that the two main organizers owned a strategic creative firm and a production company. This was a powerful way of letting them know we understood the importance of story, branding, and the types of assets required to promote them in order to bring about a great impact from the ride.
We developed a full brand, a website, 45 promotional videos, hundreds of premade social media posts, nine cycling jerseys, T-shirts, posters, and other donation and informational pieces. We talked about the ride in real time, as it was happening. We branded our RV and created informational materials to hand out to the people we met. (A bunch of guys walking around in spandex tends to attract some attention.)
For the duration of the ride, we only drank water we were able to filter from open-water sources. This created great opportunities for dialogue and a deeper level of understanding the difficulty of lacking readily accessible, clean drinking water—something most of us take for granted.
In the end we had three riders, a cameraman, and two RV drivers that took care of us through the 13 days of riding, as well as a whole team back home. By the time we dipped our tires in Lake Michigan, we had surpassed our goal of $40,000 and raised a total of $93,000! And by the end of the year, that figure climbed to $102,000, thus helping 2,550 Ugandans get water for life. We gained hundreds of supporters, wrote countless articles, and were interviewed on radio and TV.
By far our greatest reward was realizing how many people we helped. A close second was witnessing the power of design and collaboration. We saw firsthand how solid strategy, messaging, and creative can unite a message and bring clarity and punch to desired actions. Through design and video, we helped people to interact with the brand and feel a part of what we were doing—especially by purchasing materials or interacting with our videos. We also experienced the power of design-active communities on this ride: cycling communities, creative communities, and other similar communities.
The perspective of being both the creative partner and the client was fascinating. We used the same methodology and process we typically do, but the way we assessed the potential effectiveness of the project was different. We paused more than normal to make sure we understood the intended target and the possible outcome. When it came to sponsor or partner posts, we thought more through their eyes; we naturally took into account the possible impact of messaging.
Our follow-up and messaging was more consistent and thought out; we took more time to educate and explain what was happening or what was needed. The entire process caused a shift in how we think through ideas—we honed our ability to see what was needed more intimately from a client’s perspective.
We learned to ask different questions. We now think through our recommendations from additional angles and question initial assumptions before acting on them. We design at a higher level as a result of the Wheels4Water experience. Obviously we can’t wear all clients’ shoes, but we recognize the value of choosing to be involved this way on an ongoing basis and have new types of projects planned for 2016 and 2017.
Know that we were a deeper part of the outcome than usual has transformed the way we work and interact with our clients. If you are looking for a deeper, more effective way to connect with your clients and their objectives, why not consider wearing their shoes on occasion?