Chris Devidal is an Account Supervisor for EnviroMedia Social Marketing, an advertising agency that focuses exclusively on campaigns relating to environmental and social causes. I was fortunate to work under Chris during my first job out of college, and was able to witness his uncanny ability to negotiate complex landscapes involving government agencies and statewide communication campaigns. I had the privilege of sitting down with Chris over the best tacos in Austin to hear about his experiences working on some of Texas’ largest public health campaigns.
What is your most memorable campaign?
My introduction to public health was in 2007 with a disaster preparedness project that made it down to the state level. It was right after Katrina had shown that people in the Gulf Coast region were not as prepared as they should have been for disasters, particularly hurricanes. During research, we found individuals were jaded by extremist stories of people building bomb shelters to prepare them for the apocalypse. There was a general attitude that went something like, “In order to be prepared I need to build a panic room, and I am not going to do that, so why bother…”
What our campaign sought to do was focus on the easy steps people could take that would lead to better outcomes should a disaster strike. We ended up getting a great response, won several NPHIC awards and other states started using our materials.
How do state agencies view mobile technology?
A few years ago, there was this pervasive belief that smartphones were a tool of the rich, but that’s not the case, or at least no longer the case. Among lower income demographics (less thank $30k), smartphone use is above 75% for people under the age of 30. So you’re seeing situations where you have a low income, pregnant, teenage mother who has a smartphone needs answers to questions.
The biggest challenge is presenting information in a way that is relevant and inspires trust, but does not do anything that would make the government agency a campaign is associated with seem unprofessional or biased. One of the more interesting examples of public health campaigns trying to be relevant is Down and Dirty VA. It’s an anti-tobacco campaign targeting the Virginia teenage population that’s into trucks, country music and open dirt roads.
What are some of the challenges that come with working in the public sector?
Aside from the obvious challenge of marketing to an entire state’s population on a comparatively small budget, I think the biggest challenge is tech/marketing experts effectively collaborating with subject matter experts who work in the public sector.
It’s understandable there would be potential for friction because the culture and expectations of public sector teams is usually very different than the culture of marketing or design teams. In government agencies, you have subject matter experts who are extremely passionate experts about public health but might have a tough time putting themselves in the shoes of someone who is apathetic towards health issues. It’s also tough because they operate in a space that is both bureaucratic and political. Decisions can’t be made by one person on a whim, so there’s necessary circulating of documents relating to a bill or a policy until consensus or compromise can be reached. While this might not be the fastest process, it ensures all stakeholders are able to get their point across. This can be a great thing, especially in advocating for marginalized or at risk individuals.
The shadow side of cultures that have this construct of fairness and inclusion comes when you have to design poignant and laser focused communication campaigns. It can be tough for everyone involved, as multiple client teams need to have their say in the end solution (similar to a policy or bill). If the process isn’t managed perfectly, designs can be passed back and fourth (to accommodate everyone’s ideas) and they lose their poignancy.
So, the way we (EnviroMedia) address this challenge is by making sure everyone is on the same page at the beginning of a project and understands the primary objective rather than trying to retrofit designs towards the end of a project.
What’s your ideal vision for a client-agency relationship?
I think the ideal situation is one where everyone is willing to compromise and everyone has a clear understanding of their respective areas of expertise. If you can forget about “being fair” and instead let public health experts and marketing/tech experts each bring their own unique perspectives to the table, you can ruthlessly focus on the larger campaign goal and create great work.
Many thanks to Chris for sharing his wisdom and his fantastic facial hair with me. Our conversation was a great reminder of the importance of facilitation, introspection and discovery at the beginning of the project to make sure everyone understands: the goals of the campaign, indicators of success, and all motivating factors that could affect decisions (political, personal emotional, etc).
For those interested in the history and progression of public health, technology and social marketing campaigns, you may find some of these links of interest: