The best of non-profit advertising and marketing for social causes

Round Table: Better World Advertising

Round Table: Better World Advertising


“I started Better World Advertising (BWA) because I saw the power that social marketing could have in helping individuals, and society as whole, in solving issues that cause a lot of pain and suffering.  I still believe that getting information to people and delivering messages that motivate them to make better decisions has unlimited potential for good.”

As said by Les Pappas, President & Creative Director of San Fransisco and New York based social advertising and marketing agency Better World Advertising. Regular visitors of Osocio know the work of BWA very well. Time to talk with BWA. In this new chapter of the Round Table we spoke with Les Pappas and Emily Foran, Art Director at BWA. Again a collaboration with James David from The Groundswell Collective. This interview is crossposted at his great blog.

Does developing a BWA campaign differ from traditional agencies? How?

EmilyForanEmily Foran: From a design perspective, yes and no. The primary difference is that we are selling social progress, not products. Our clients are looking for changes in behaviors and not increase in sales. Sometimes this makes it all the more important that a subhead is readable from two blocks away, or the photo in an ad presents a convincing, credible idea to our target audience. In order to sell “real” social norms, we need to be able to reach people at face level, and not necessarily present an over-the-top, glamorous world to which they may aspire and drink more Coca Cola.

On the other hand, most of the rules in marketing still apply; we have a target audience, goal, message, budget, talent and many of the same traditional media venues.

LesPappasLes Pappas: We have a unique approach to our work.  Perhaps the biggest difference is that we bring a personal investment to every campaign and we maintain the focus on the target audience rather than the client.

According to your client list BWA is specialized in LGBT, HIV and Health topics. Is that a coincidence or on purpose?

Les Pappas: We try to concentrate on topics that are both meaningful to us personally and ones that we can bring genuine expertise to.  Our direction is informed by and rooted in our passion and our experience.

Emily Foran: Those areas, plus Harm Reduction are where Les and BWA got their start, and we have been expanding on them ever since. I think many of our clients approach us because of our experience and expertise in these areas, and while we try to maintain this focus somewhat, we are open to expanding when the right campaign comes along (e.g. our recent work in foster care.)

You have two offices, San Fransisco and New York. Are there differences in clients, work process etc?

Emily Foran: Our NY office is still relatively new and has fewer employees. We try to keep the workflow between the two offices as consistent as possible. The main difference is that the design team is based in San Francisco. In general, our project managers work with the east-coast clients from the New York office, and west coast in SF.

Les Pappas: Those cities are different, but so are all the other cities where we have clients, like Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston, so understanding differences is an ongoing topic.  The big difference between our two offices is that the design team is based in San Francisco.  So far, this hasn’t been a problem, but one day we may decide to also have designers in New York.


We’re Not Taking It Lying Down! HIV Prevention campaign for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Women’s Institute at GMHC

BWA’s statement on social marketing expresses changing individual behavior through “the modification of group norms.”  Does this statement speak to a wider approach and philosophy about social change?

Les Pappas: Yes, we are definitely interested in the big picture.  We think that changes on a societal level are necessary to bring about the kind of world we want to live in.  This also reflects our belief that people are basically social, and therefore we are greatly influenced by each other.

Emily Foran: When you get down to it, I believe advertising is storytelling. I think we learn and grow as individuals and a society by sharing and relating to one another. In times of crisis, we look to the lead of a friend, family member, activist, or dare I say it, president for advice. Sometimes all it takes is pointing out a fact to a person, to get them to believe and act upon it. That’s how the human race progresses.

How does a campaign inform the advertising vehicle that you use to channel your message, is it budget, demographic, or something else?

Les Pappas: Naturally, the budget determines the scope of the campaign and let’s us know some of the limitations we have to both work within and try to overcome.  However, we absolutely have to match the message with the right communication channels and we need to determine which channels will be effective in reaching a specific audience.

How is the agenda set at BWA, does your client base determine the issues you address, or is this an executive decision?

Emily Foran: Our clients usually come to us with a “problem” that they want us to help them solve with social marketing. Their funding is usually very specific about which issue they can make a campaign for, but it is my understanding that sometimes, with research and evaluation, we help them to determine what the high-risk behaviors are and develop a focus from there.

Les Pappas: This is partly a consequence of who we are and where we come from, and partly about evaluating where we can have the greatest effect.  We’re always evaluating opportunities and wrestling with keeping our focus.

Your campaigns are incredibly aware of group norms, from behavior to aspirations.  How do you stay plugged into the communities you represent?

Les Pappas: We are members of those communities.  Our staff is very diverse, so between us we are connected to a lot of difference communities.  Even so, we have to keep up with what’s happening so we participate, observe, and study the groups we’re trying to impact.

Emily Foran: We have a very diverse staff with individuals who represent varying ages, races, sexual orientations and other kinds of backgrounds. We each bring unique insight to the trends and needs of our audiences. San Francisco and New York are both very diverse cities where we are confronted with a range of racial, religious, political and socio-economical cultures on a daily basis. We also listen to our clients to utilize their knowledge base about their target audiences. Researching trends and avenues for communicating to a specific audience is always a pertinent part of our creative process – we build upon our research with the aim to stand out from the pack.


Healthy Penis. Syphilis awareness campaign for Gay City Health Project, Rainbow Resource Centre, San Francisco Dept. of Public Health, Santa Clara County DPH

BWA doesn’t do much on PR for itself. Why?

Emily Foran: We discuss this as a staff periodically, but we feel strongly that our work speaks for itself! For the most part, this formula has worked for us. However, we are always looking for ways to improve our website and other company collateral, but with limited client budgets and tight deadlines, there isn’t a lot of time or resources left over to market our own agency.

How do you see the nearby future, thinking of the financial crisis? Will it have effects on BWA?

Les Pappas: The recession is definitely having an impact.  Our government clients are experiencing huge budget deficits and it seems that public education and prevention projects are always the first things to get cut.  Nevertheless, we are hopeful that our new President will put resources into helping deal with the issues we care about.


Don’t Erase Your Future. Suicide Prevention campaign for Regis University, University of CA at Irvine, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Puerto Rico at Cayey

What is the most successful campaign BWA made?

Les Pappas: If we help some people to stop smoking or keep themselves from getting HIV or seek help instead of taking their own life or come forward to be a foster parent, these are our successes.  Depending on the measures you look at, some campaigns will appear more successful than others, but overall it’s difficult to compare them.

Emily Foran: Oh, that all depends on how you measure success! I think most of our campaigns have made a great impact, and we have a lot of evaluation statistics to confirm that they met the goals. What is more humbling is the occasional email we get from an individual affected positively by a campaign, for example a student at the University of California wrote to us that they were about to commit suicide when they looked down and saw our “Don’t Erase Your Future” campaign in their student newspaper. It may only be one life saved but I believe that alone is enough to change the world.

What would be your favourite client which isn’t already on your client list?

Les Pappas: I am not lusting over any potential clients.  I’m more concerned with finding clients that appreciate what we have to offer and truly want to form a partnership with us.  When I think about future work, I don’t think about clients, I think about issues and the people we could help.

See all work from Better World Advertising here.

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