Innovating for a More Connected World

Feb 24

Through my work with USAID and the Peace Corps, I often have the opportunity to attend conferences that bring together key thought leaders on pressing international development issues. I thoroughly enjoyed a recent forum hosted by New America, “The Next Three Billion – Initiatives to Bring the Whole World Online.”

Experts from NGOs, and the public and private sectors, gathered to discuss how to more quickly bring 1.5 billion people around the world online by 2020. Attendees included representatives from the U.S. State Department, USAID, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and The ONE Campaign.

What’s at Stake?

Today, more than half of the world’s population (4 billion people) remains digitally disconnected, leaving them isolated and economically disadvantaged—especially in rural parts of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. There are several contributing factors including limited storage and memory on phones, unstable power sources, network congestion, bandwidth constraints, and cost-prohibitive data plans.

The development community understands that digital connectivity is a central issue for economic growth and development. In 2015, the State Department and the World Bank launched the Global Connect Initiative (GCI) with the goal of getting an additional 1.5 billion people online by 2020.


The conference focused on two key takeaways related to this issue.

Growing consensus to seize the moment. With the launch of GCI, there is growing acknowledgement among government leaders that Internet connectivity is as important as traditional infrastructure. In fact, 12 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals have directives around information and communications technology (ICT). In developing countries, this represents a shift in responsibility: until recently, finance ministers believed education ministers should address this issue. The need to help countries bolster their connectivity also has bipartisan support from the U.S. Congress and President Trump.

Public/private sector collaboration is critical. Tech evangelist Meghan Smith said, “…increasing connectivity is the most critical and extraordinary service work we can do, and every idea contributes to the greater good, whether it’s from industry, NGOs, local governments, high school students, or young children living in developing nations.” In other words, this is not just the responsibility of the tech industry; policy and advocacy are also needed, which includes:

  • Working with U.S. government and country leaders to institute policies that will catalyze the work that is happening overseas.
  • Urging national government officials from developing economies to prioritize connectivity. Mission-critical sites include rural schools and hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and South America.


Which Private Sector Projects Are Leading the Way?

Representatives from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and OneWeb discussed how their companies are bridging the digital divide.

Global wireless broadband strategies

Marian Croak, VP of Access Strategy at Google, discussed the company’s focus on creating more affordable and abundant access. She emphasized that there is no magical solution in technology or business—we must apply a variety of models to reach different communities in new ways. One of Google’s great successes has been working with Indian Railways and RailTel to increase WiFi access by layering in fiber along the tracks at train stations. To date, Google has built 112 WiFi hot spots that now have 6 million active users, including high school students who come to the stations to do their homework.

Google’s moonshot

Project Loon is another exciting project led by Google’s sister partner, X, which has built a network of balloons that travel at 20km within the stratosphere (above the weather) to provide connectivity for rural areas across the globe. To date, these balloons have flown over 16 million miles, transmitting high-speed Internet access to people’s handsets on the ground in Latin America. In 5 to 7 years, Google envisions that these balloons will provide sustained access to the most remote regions.

From fiber optics to satellite technology

Greg Wyler, founder of OneWeb, is building O3B (“other 3 billion”) Networks—the world’s fastest satellites connecting directly to homes and schools. OneWeb’s first goal is to connect every school in the world by 2022. Then, by 2027, they plan to completely bridge the digital divide by providing broadband access to anyone who wants it at a GDP-adjusted affordable rate. OneWeb expects to have launched at least 10 satellites by 2018.

Moving from scarcity to abundance

Bob Pepper, Head of Global Connectivity Policy & Planning at Facebook, discussed the need to identify and fill the gaps where people are still not connected or are “under-connected.” Facebook is testing the use of large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with the wingspan of a 737. These UAVs will use lasers to connect remote areas, or cities such as Mumbai, where fiber will not be installed in the near future. Another dimension to this issue is community awareness. To that end, Facebook launched Free Basics—a “skinny version” of Internet access that is non-exclusive to mobile partners. A key learning from this effort is that as soon as people get introduced to the basics, they want to ramp up for more sophisticated information, including video and imagery.

Moving forward—can we move even faster?

Cecilia Kang, National Technology Correspondent for The New York Times, asked an important concluding question: “You are all competitors with proprietary projects. Are there ways to work together to ensure greater efficiency?”

The collective response was optimistic: The tech industry recognizes that expanded connectivity also expands business opportunity. So the private sector has a vested interest in developing a sustainable business model that ensures universal access. These new technologies and innovations are not sold as a service and the business goal is simply to recover their costs.

The speakers adamantly agreed that there is also a genuine passion to achieve this goal. This mission is part of “doing good by doing well” and according to Facebook, creates a “virtuous cycle of growing the economy and creating more vibrant, educated societies.”

In just a few years at most, these innovations and collaborations will culminate with a flip of switch in expanding access to many more great minds. As a result, economic development and growth across the globe will get an unprecedented boost.

Can Zebras Stop Traffic Violations?

Feb 22

Picture this. You’re making your way around the traffic circle in Dupont, glancing at the time knowing that you’re late to meet your friends for brunch. Feeling a little overeager, you inch forward at a red light – inadvertently blocking the pedestrian crosswalk.

With mimosas and eggs benedict on your mind, you’re startled when a zebra suddenly appears in front of your car and breaks out into a dance (for visualization purposes, I’m imaging the running man, Macarena, or the Nae Nae).

You thought no one would notice your seemingly minor violation of traffic decorum. But now people are definitely noticing. Startled and feeling guilty, you look around to see the chortling faces of the pedestrians, bikers, and other drivers.

As you anxiously wait for the light to turn green, the zebra’s dance moves are relentless enough to make embarrassment and humiliation creep into your bones, ensuring an extra level of caution as you continue on your route.

Sound crazy? This is exactly the type of tactic used in both Colombia and Bolivia to nudge drivers toward safer habits.

In the 1990s Bogota’s mayor, Antanas Mockus, “hired 420 mime artists to make fun of traffic violators because he believ[ed] Colombians fear[ed] ridicule more than being fined” according to The Guardian. Turns out that sometimes silence is the answer – the mime experiment helped cut traffic fatalities by over 50%.

Since 2001, La Paz has adopted a similar approach to curbing traffic violations – but with zebras, or cebritas. These cebritas “dance, gesture comically at drivers, and help pedestrians safely cross the street.” An article from The Atlantic notes:

“On a lot of busy corners you will have police directing traffic, but their method of doing it is whistling at you, yelling at you, pulling you over, giving you a ticket,” says Derren Patterson, an American who owns a walking-tour agency in La Paz. “Whereas the way the zebras do it, if a car stops in the crosswalk, they will lay across his hood.”

In addition to their civic duties, they visit local organizations such as schools and hospitals. Those who don the black and white suit of honor range from disadvantaged students earning a small stipend to tourists participating in the “Zebra for a Day” project. Sixteen years after the program started, the original humble herd of 24 zebras has now grown to over 260 volunteers across four cities in Bolivia.

In this instance, I think behavior change by way of a zebra-induced guilt trip works. According to the author and clinical educator Dr. Brené Brown (insert praise hands), guilt can be a healthy thing. The psychological discomfort that arises when we do something against our values (i.e., violating a traffic law) can be a driving force to realign future action with those values (i.e., following the law).

However, I don’t think that leveraging embarrassment to drive behavior change can be universally applied, particularly if the behaviors we are trying to change are often tied to shame – as opposed to guilt. Brown explains that “shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior…shame is ‘I am bad’ [and] guilt is ‘I did something bad’.” I would hypothesize that the behaviors many of us fight shame and insecurities about – maintaining a healthy weight, staying active, being financially responsible – would be ill-fit to be addressed with tactics related to embarrassment.

But, when it comes to traffic violations – something that many people would feel a little guilty about, but not necessarily internalize as an ‘I am a terrible person’ – it works.

So, two questions for you:

  1. What do you think would be the most effective guilt-inducing mascot for your city? Zebras? Mimes? Something else?
  2. Do you believe humiliation and embarrassment can be an effective way to drive behavior change?

Brand Activism: Fumble or Touchdown?

Feb 10

There’s been a lot of discussion in the past few days about this year’s Super Bowl ads. Many have been cheering on the brands that are taking a stand on issues, while others have criticized companies for their points of view or for not being authentic. From the emotional, riveting story told by 84 Lumber, to the powerful statement by Airbnb, to Audi’s position on the gender wage gap, these ads reflect a growing trend of activism in advertising, with brands tackling the pressing issues of the day.

Beyond ads, as this recent article in The Guardian points out, companies also are taking actions toward social responsibility (e.g., Starbucks’ promise to hire 10,000 refugees, Airbnb providing free accommodation to those affected by the travel ban) – yet only if consumers know about it. As the author points out, activism sells, and brands know it.

In today’s politically charged environment, this activism by brands raises questions among consumers that marketers need to be prepared to answer: what is the underlying motivation, does it feel genuine, and is it enough (is it all talk and no action)? And for the more cynical among us, do these strong statements by brands, and our subsequent desire to support that, make us feel like we’ve taken action when we haven’t actually done anything at all?

Ogilvy’s own Chris Graves flags key considerations for companies taking on a social cause, such as looking at their own track record of hard work “that makes [their] position natural, not a cynical cause du jour.” For example, Audi received a lot of criticism for making such a strong statement on gender equality while the company has no women on its six-person executive team. Drexel University’s Daniel Korschun reports on research that explains why ads like this may fall flat: what seems to be important to consumers is whether or not a brand behaves consistently with its purported values, as opposed to what the values are. If a company boldly takes a stand on an issue, but then doesn’t live up to that promise by either changing its stance or not speaking up at all when the issue comes into the public discourse, that is when consumers start to question the company’s authenticity.

At Ogilvy, we applaud corporate efforts to support social causes, and suggest five key guideposts for companies to consider:

1. Alignment. Companies should give careful consideration to whether the social issue or cultural tension they are trying to address actually aligns with their Brand Self – those attributes and actions that the company currently adheres to or aspires to.

2. Authenticity. Does the company have a full program behind the issue they are speaking out on? Are they prepared to not only take a strong stance but also put resources into initiatives that help educate and change societal behaviors, and/or shift business practices to make a real impact?

3. Depth. Has the company considered how to enlist its customers, employees, and other key constituents in the cause?

4. Messaging. Are the company’s creative materials and assets being produced in a culturally, emotionally, and linguistically appropriate manner?

5. Measurement. Has the company considered the important role of measurement? What monitoring and evaluation plans are in place to determine the success of the effort and/or help optimize the effort for the future?

It would be interesting to know how rigorously marketing managers considered factors like these when developing these types of ads, and what plans companies may be considering now in the face of the resulting fodder around such bold displays of brand activism during Super Bowl 51.

Overall, when designed well and implemented properly, social purpose efforts can generate meaningful benefits for companies and their customers, as well as society at large.

What Drives Voting? Social Media Is the New Sticker

Oct 20

Last week, a Fast Company headline caught my eye – “The Surprising Genius of the ‘I Voted’ Sticker.” In the article, the author refers to a “simpler time” in the 1980s when the stickers were first introduced and explains the basic power of the sticker: social pressure. Many of us vote so that we can tell the world that we did; in turn, our peers feel pressured to vote. IMO, it’s the best use of stickers yet (save for all those scratch-and-sniffs in my elementary school sticker album!).

I Voted Sticker

There’s a theory to explain this—one that we use all the time as social marketers. It’s called the Social Learning Theory. Associated with psychologist Albert Bandura’s work in the 1960s, social learning theory explains how people learn new behaviors, values, and attitudes. He posits that behavior is regulated by its consequences, but only as those consequences are interpreted and understood by the individual. The outcome may be improved health status, physical appearance, economic gain, or some other perceived benefit.

In Ogilvy’s Social Change group, we often use this theory as the foundation for campaigns that are at the heart of our mission: to improve lives and effect change.

I write about this not to bore you with fancy theories, but rather to get to the heart of how we do what we do. The word “theory” often scares people, but the social learning theory is pretty straightforward and accessible. Sometimes affecting behavior is as simple as the peer pressure that results from a sticker.

Here’s an example of another type of social learning. In 2013, Ogilvy Washington created an award-winning campaign for the National Association of Broadcasters that chipped away at the stigma surrounding mental illness by creating an online community where teens and young adults struggling with mental health problems could open up and share their personal stories of recovery, tragedy, struggle, and hope. was a safe place where teens took cues from their peers on positive and productive ways to live with and get help for mental health problems. As a result, there was a 7% increase in calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (promoted prominently on in July/August 2013 compared to 2012—approximately 13,000 calls.

Celebrities can also play a powerful role when it comes to social learning. In 2011, popstar Demi Lovato announced that she was living with depression and bipolar disorder. Since then, Lovato has partnered with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) and other groups to encourage teens to step out of the shadows, be vocal about their struggles, and get the help they need. Like OK2TALK, this is social learning theory in action: when people can identify with a recognizable peer, they have a greater sense of self-efficacy and then imitate the actions to learn the proper preventions and actions.

This is not to say that a celebrity spokesperson is the answer for every campaign, or that social learning theory is the best theory on which to base your campaign. From Stages of Change to the Diffusion of Innovation theory, there are many other useful theories we use as social marketers to reach and engage audiences, and sustain our connection with them.

But back to voting. As we (mercifully) count down the final days of this presidential election season, it’s worth talking about the evolution of the “I Voted” sticker. While many of us will still wear our “I Voted” stickers with pride on Election Day, a new badge of honor pervades. This isn’t breaking news, but social media has become a very powerful channel for social learning: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. In fact, these may be the most important channels for influencing behavior today.

Last week, The New York Times reported on Facebook’s role in driving voter registration. With a four-day Facebook promotion in September, registrations rose drastically on the first day of the campaign compared with the day before, as reported by nine states.

From the Times: “In California, 123,279 people registered to vote or updated their registrations on Friday, Sept. 23, the first day that Facebook users were presented with the reminder. That was the fourth-highest daily total in the history of the state’s online registration site.”

So where does social learning theory come into play? Next to the voter registration reminder, Facebook included a button that allowed users to share the fact that they had registered. The same thing happens on Election Day—Facebook encourages you to share your “I Voted” message. This virtual sticker has the ability to be seen by my hundreds of Facebook friends—far more people than would physically see me and my “I Voted” sticker.

So here’s the bottom line: It’s just the same as it always was. Peer pressure works. But now our circle of influence is much, much larger. Use it for good, people. Vote, and when you do, wear and share your sticker.

Wanted: Blood, Urine, and a Soil Sample from Your Yard

Oct 03

The Precision Medicine Initiative is a bold new research effort to revolutionize how we improve health and treat disease.

The Precision Medicine Initiative is a bold new research effort to revolutionize how we improve health and treat disease.

What would it take to get you to participate in a government study in which you and 999,999 other people committed to providing personal health data and blood and urine samples for at least 10 years?

This summer, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced $55 million in awards to build the foundation and infrastructure needed to launch the Cohort Program of President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI). The PMI Cohort Program is a landmark longitudinal research effort that aims to engage 1 million U.S. participants to improve our ability to prevent and treat disease based on individual differences in lifestyle, environment, and genetics.

No other government study of its kind comes close to recruiting this many participants. For comparison, the government’s well-known, population-based Framingham Heart Study has enrolled 15,447 participants since it started in 1948. The PMI Cohort Program aims to recruit 79,000 participants in its first year.

A recent NIH survey showed that 54% of respondents would definitely or probably participate in the PMI Cohort Program if asked. While 79% of respondents supported the study, the two groups who were less inclined to participate were those with fewer years of education and those ages 60 and above.

The promise of precision medicine has grown as Americans are engaging in improving their health and participating in health research more than ever before, electronic health records have been widely adopted, genomic analysis costs have dropped significantly, data science has become increasingly sophisticated, and health technologies have become mobile.

Although official recruitment for the program is not yet underway, NIH is using several key messages to encourage participation:

#1 – Precision medicine is an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person. Doctors could eventually use the PMI Cohort Program data to shape treatment for an individual patient, rather than using standard treatments that may not work for everyone.

#2 – Anyone living in the U.S. will be able to participate in the PMI Cohort Program. Volunteers will be asked to share data including information from their electronic health records and health questionnaires. Participants will also undergo a standard baseline physical evaluation and provide blood and urine samples. Participants may be asked to provide health data on lifestyle habits and environmental exposures as well, from activity-tracking devices like Fitbit.

#3 – A foundation of diverse partners will ensure that the cohort is representative of our country’s diversity. NIH has selected four regional medical centers, six Federally Qualified Health Centers, and the VA as initial partners—improving the ability to reach large numbers of potential volunteers, which contributes to the overall diversity of the participants and regions reached by this phase of the program.

#4 – Personal health information won’t be held behind a veil of secrecy… Patients will have access to their own data so they can participate fully in decisions about their health that affect them. Officials say they want patients to be partners in the research, not just “human subjects.” To that end, patients will have access to all the information about themselves, including laboratory and genetic test results.

#5 – But it will be protected! Maintaining data security and privacy will be paramount to maintaining participants’ trust and engagement. The program will engage teams of privacy experts and employ rigorous security testing models, develop participant education with regard to privacy and potential re-identification risk, and clearly articulate response plans in the case of a privacy breach.

As NIH moves forward with the rollout of the PMI Cohort Program, I look forward to following how they manage a variety of related communications considerations:

  • Research to understand participant motivators. Will people respond best to messaging that puts them at the center of advancing medicine? Will they be driven by the opportunity to save others’ lives or improve their own condition? Answers to these types of questions will aide in developing clear, audience-based messages and materials.
  • Channel strategy. To recruit 1 million people, NIH is going to have to get creative about how it reaches people, while at the same time respecting the boundaries of IRB. The importance of an online presence goes without saying, but how will NIH use new and emerging social platforms for communications efforts? What channels will reach less educated and older Americans?
  • Crisis communications. Security breaches. Unexpected negative findings. When crisis hits—as it inevitably does—how will NIH respond? By having crisis-planning templates and checklists “at the ready,” NIH will be steps ahead in a crisis situation.
  • Media relations. A government program of this size will draw a significant amount of media interest. How can NIH recognize and take advantage of the media’s interest? What strategies will NIH use to maximize the reach of program results?


The PMI will enable a new era of medicine in which researchers, providers, and patients work together to develop individualized care. But its success depends on how NIH uses communications to recruit and retain participants, the strength and scope of the participant pool—and ultimately, how the data trove is used.

Top Picks from Day 2 of the Social Good Summit

Sep 20

Day 2 of the Social Good Summit was also very uplifting and attendees walked away with the clear directive to aim high and use your voice to affect change. Every talk was inspiring, but here are my top picks:

The Summit began with a big salute to the 17 UN Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) who were selected from more than 18,000 nominations. These leaders will work with the Office of the UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth to engage young people on the most pressing SDGs. Winners included:

  • Ankit Kawatra, Founder and Chairman of Feeding India, founded Feeding India in 2014 to address two issues at once – hunger and food waste.
  • Trisha Shetty, Founder and CEO of SheSays, a platform to educate, rehabilitate and empower women to take direct action against sexual assault in India.
  • Samir Mezghanni, a Tunisian-Iraqi author of over 100 short stories for children and 14 books focused on advocating for youth empowerment in Tunisia.


Actor Alec Baldwin and activist Patricia Gualinga at the Social Good Summit. Image: Mashable

Actor Alec Baldwin and activist Patricia Gualinga at the Social Good Summit. Image: Mashable

Actor Alec Baldwin spoke with Ecuadorian advocate Patricia Gualinga about the dangers of de-forestation on climate change. Patricia explained that in order to reach our SDGs on climate change, as well as follow the Paris Climate Agreement, we must focus on protecting our forests. Indigenous people from countries such as Ecuador are not receiving enough support from their government to protect against illegal logging and extracting industries, and as a result, carbon will release into the atmosphere at faster rates. Indigenous people don’t want their trees destroyed.

You could hear a pin drop as Vice President Joe Biden delivered a passionate speech on the Cancer Moonshot. He stated, “at no time in history have we had so much power… available to make a difference for so many people.” Biden believes that “we can double the rate of progress towards curing cancer in if we all work together.” So here’s what governments, cancer research centers, drug companies and health care systems around the globe must do:

  • Data sharing and technology: Standardize data and make it easily accessible to researchers around the globe. Example: The Department of Energy will work with Norway to share cervical cancer screening data. Technology systems like IBM Watson can help researchers and clinicians work more efficiently.
  • Redesigning cancer clinical trials: Bring the FDA and the private sector together to design smarter and more efficient clinical trials by modifying the criteria for who can participate and by sharing control groups across studies.
  • Join with other nations to strengthen cancer research and treatment: To that end, Biden announced the creation of regional hubs funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), focusing on the cancers that pose the greatest problems in that region.
  • Continue research on more targeted treatments: Immuno-oncology drugs have significantly advanced the way we treat the most intractable cancers, such as melanoma and lung cancer. These treatments work in ways never imaginable – by boosting immune systems instead of killing healthy cells.


I am looking forward to next year’s Summit and hearing about the amazing progress we have made across a number of critical issues, especially in the areas of global cancer control, antibiotic resistance, gender equality and climate change. Ultimately, almost everything discussed over the course of the Summit is rooted in behavior change programs that work at the individual, community and policy levels.

3 Themes from Day 1 of the Social Good Summit

Sep 19

Social Good Summit logo

I am very excited to be attending the Social Good Summit at the 92nd Street Y. Day One of the Summit–which examines the impact of technology and new media on social good initiatives around the world–focused on the following themes:

  1. To address core problems facing the globe, change must happen at the individual, community, policy and corporate levels.
  2. Steps taken now that result in positive change will ensure our children and grandchildren live better lives.
  3. We cannot see lasting change here in the U.S. unless we all work together to help address issues affecting developing countries around the globe. The U.S. has an obligation to lead the charge; this is no different from how we helped Europe and Japan rebuild after WWII.


Against these themes, experts, thought leaders and entrepreneurs shared the specific ways we can make a difference and reach our Sustainable Development Goals, which in total, are a fundamental promise to save and protect lives around the globe. Here are some highlights:

Addressing Gender Equality Has a Positive Impact on Developing Nations

Societies benefit when women who have access to education, health care and food. However, in order to truly tackle gender equality issues, we must do several things:

  • Ensure there are more women in top government leadership positions. Said UNDP Helen Clark and Former President of Malawi, Joyce Banda: “Women in leadership have to be tougher. We need to roll out the carpet ourselves and kick down the door. And when you get to the top, drop the ladder down for others to follow.”
  • UNF’s Emily Courey spoke about the need to improve access to better data that provides a more complete picture of issues affecting women in developing countries.
  • Jean Case, founder of the Case Foundation, encouraged investment by VCs to fund female entrepreneurs to tackle the most daunting challenges around gender inequality.


Using Technology for the Sake of Humanity

In order to truly seed innovation at a rapid pace, film producer and entrepreneur Mick Ebeling says we must embark on a “Revolution against the absurd.” That means following this simple rule: “Elect to commit and then figure it out.”

In other words, say “yes” to tackling an issue even before you have a solution. That philosophy has already resulted in major breakthroughs. Just recently, Mick lead the creation of an eye writer for an ALS patient who was completely paralyzed and created a 3-D prosthetic for a young boy in Sudan who lost both his arms in a bombing.

Teddy Goff, Chief Digital Strategist for Hillary Clinton, spoke of the importance of storytelling through video. Video shared via social media reveals injustices. The downside: the rapid pace of profiling injustices fuels feelings of slowness to address society’s greatest problems.

Launching behavior change programs that spark a global movement can turn the tide around key issues affecting developing nations, including climate change and antibiotic resistance.

We heard the head of the GAVI Alliance, Dr. Seth Berkley, discuss how fighting anti-microbial resistance (aka the emergence of super bugs) – requires the collaboration of policy makers, people, pharmaceutical companies and physicians on the proper use of antibiotics to treat infections. Otherwise bugs will continue “to have sex” at a crazy pace.

According to Mary Robinson, UN Special Envoy for El Nino and Climate, we need a global movement not for climate change, but for climate justice. This means elevating climate change as a social issue because it must occur in a way where land rights are respected and gender equality is ensured.

More to come! On today’s agenda Vice President Joe Biden, Alec Baldwin and Jane Goodall.


How the World Wins When Presidents Survive Disease

Sep 15

As Barack Obama’s presidency comes to an end, there’s a lot of discussion about legacy and predictions about how he’ll be remembered. It has me thinking about how we remember the other men who have held that high office. Those who are considered our top presidents have profound epitaphs, but their contributions to public health barely make it onto their Wikipedia pages.

Mount Rushmore

What if more U.S. presidents were remembered for their contributions to public health?

Our first president, George Washington, was the incredibly skilled commander of the Continental Army, he was the first to sign the U.S. Constitution, and he was unanimously elected president in the country’s first two elections.

Well before all of that, when Washington was 19 years old, he contracted smallpox. He survived the disease, which killed 1 of 3 people who were infected, and lived with its characteristic facial scarring for the rest of his life.

Whatever lessons Washington may have learned from this experience, perhaps the most valuable was the lesson that because he had been infected with and survived smallpox, he wouldn’t be at risk of getting it in the future. He was immune, like all the others who had survived the disease.

He had to act on that lesson as a military leader. The formation of the Continental Army itself was the first time that so many men from across the colonies came together in one place (since people didn’t usually travel much then), so it was a natural breeding ground for disease. In some ways, it was the first, albeit accidental, laboratory for public health in the U.S.

Whenever there was an outbreak or a situation in which smallpox might be a factor, Washington would send in soldiers that had already endured the disease to avoid an outbreak among his troops. It was an effective strategy, but Washington knew that variolation (a method of immunizing with a mild form of the disease) was far better—especially as it was believed that the British were using smallpox as a form of biological warfare.

There was a lot of skepticism and objection to the practice of vaccination in Washington’s day. But he pressed forward, saying: “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army . . . we should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy.”

Washington had to resist the desire to inoculate all the troops at once because he knew that he couldn’t survive the war with all of his men sidelined for the month necessary to recuperate. Instead, he instituted a controversial system where new recruits would be inoculated with smallpox immediately upon enlistment. As a result, soldiers would contract the milder form of the disease at the same time that they were being outfitted with uniforms and weapons. Soldiers would consequently be completely healed, inoculated, and supplied by the time they left to join the army.

By the end of 1777, nearly 40,000 troops had been inoculated, and the smallpox infection rate among soldiers dropped from 17 to one percent. Washington showed the soldiers and people of his time that the best way to avoid diseases like smallpox was vaccination.

It took more than 200 years after Washington’s contributions, but in 1979 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the global eradication of smallpox. It is one of only two infectious diseases that has been eradicated globally—the other is rinderpest, a cattle-borne disease eradicated in 2011.

Nearly 150 years after Washington was in office, Franklin Delano Roosevelt established his own legacy: he ended Prohibition, pulled the country out of the Great Depression, and bolstered Allied Forces during World War II.

FDR also had polio, which he contracted at age 39 in 1921.

As president, FDR founded the organization that eventually became the March of Dimes. Donations to the March of Dimes funded research seeking a cure for the disease and laid the foundation for Jonas Salk’s successful development and implementation of a vaccine against the virus in 1952. Polio was declared eradicated in the United States in 1979.

Despite this success, polio still hasn’t achieved worldwide elimination. Learning that there were less than 100 cases diagnosed in 2015 might lead you to believe that worldwide eradication is imminent. Frustratingly, it’s not. In a 2011 New York Times article, Don McNeil reported: “Although caseloads are down more than 99 percent since the [global eradication] campaign began in 1985, getting rid of the last 1 percent has been like trying to squeeze Jell-O to death. As the vaccination fist closes in one country, the virus bursts out in another.”

The good news is that we have the diagnostic tools to detect polio and an effective intervention (a vaccine), so in theory it’s possible to eradicate the disease. India is the latest country to have officially stopped transmission of polio—with its last reported case in 2011. Only three countries remain where the disease is endemic—Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.

So while we’re inundated with stories of email servers and 50 ft. walls this election season, a more important topic of conversation is what type of public health legacy our next president has the opportunity to leave. The reality is that a president doesn’t have to survive disease for the world to win. When our next president leaves office, polio or another disease could be eradicated. I think it’s a worthy and achievable goal.

ColorComm 2016 – Inspiring and Enlightening Time with Women of Color in Communications

Aug 05

Public relations agencies have increasingly been under scrutiny for their lack of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity at senior management levels. Women of color grapple with these issues on a daily basis—highlighting the reality that all communications professionals must play a role in addressing this problem.

To better understand these dynamics, several members of the Ogilvy Washington Social Change team attended the 2016 ColorComm annual conference and retreat, July 20-22, 2016 in Key Biscayne, FL. ColorComm is the only organization for women of color in communications. Several Fortune 500 companies and communications agencies – both large and small – were represented at this year’s meeting. This year’s theme, “Leading the Way,” focused on matters of importance to women of color in the industry including the lack of women in the C-Suite of PR firms, the impact of social media as it relates to multicultural marketing, financial insights and tips, and intimate talks with some of the most influential women of color in the industry.

Attendees were challenged to: 1. Speak Up 2. Follow Up and 3. Step Up. As Lauren Wesley Wilson, Founder & President of ColorComm described this year’s theme, if you want something in your current role, speak up; follow up with the people you are trying to get in front of; and most importantly, step up, because opportunity does not knock on your timeframe and it may not come around again.

On the first day of the conference, Ogilvy sponsored a panel discussion entitled, “Tapping Into Your Creative Genius,” led by Jennifer Risi, Managing Director, Ogilvy Media Influence; Kathy Baird, Executive Vice President, Ogilvy Content + Social; Lily Eng, Vice President, Technology & Ogilvy Media Influence; and Stacey Ryan-Cornelius, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Financial Controller. This discussion was a powerful moment to kick off the conference because it set the tone for an open and comfortable forum to discuss social issues.

Other distinguished panelists included motivational speaker Lisa Nichols who was featured in the movie, “The Secret,” which teaches the principles of abundance and attraction. Nichols’ session, “How to Live an Abundant Life,” was enlightening because it normalized our ubiquitous struggle with work-life balance.

In addition, I’m pleased to say that one of the major outcomes from this year’s conference is to create an inter-agency task force led by Lisa Ross, Managing Director at Apco Worldwide, focused on the barriers preventing women and people of color from leading in the C-suite of PR firms. The goal will be to create long-term, sustainable solutions that eliminate barriers and a call for application of those solutions industry wide.

Ogilvy colleagues left this year’s sold-out ColorComm conference inspired and fulfilled by the conversations of change and progress. We are pleased that Ogilvy has made a commitment to making diversity a priority within the company (see Ogilvy’s philosophy on Diversity & Inclusion) and look forward to seeing sustainable changes in the industry in the very near future.

I will close with a Facebook post by Stuart Smith, Global CEO, Ogilvy Public Relations, who commented, “Had great time with friends and colleagues at Colorcomm 2016. Diversity & Inclusion. Right for our people. Right for our clients. Right for our business. Right. Period.”

Please see related ColorComm posts from Ogilvy colleagues, Jen Risi, and Jean-Rene Zetrenne, Chief Talent Officer, Ogilvy & Mather: and comm group photo

Lesson on Infographics from John Snow (no, not that Jon Snow)

Jan 12

Data visualization. Information architecture. Infographic.

These are buzz words in the modern communications environment where the ability to show processes, statistics, and messages in a visually pleasing way has become communications gold. The growth of communications platforms like Facebook and Twitter has driven the value of graphic content, including infographics, which can be shared with the click of a button.

But what makes a good infographic?

In his 1983 book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, data visualization pioneer Edward Tufte says that ‘graphical displays’ should:

  • Show the data;
  • Induce the viewer to think about the substance rather than about methodology, graphic design, the technology of graphic production, or something else;
  • Avoid distorting what the data have to say;
  • Present many numbers in a small space;
  • Make large data sets coherent;
  • Encourage the eye to compare different pieces of data;
  • Reveal the data at several levels of detail, from a broad overview to the fine structure;
  • Serve a reasonably clear purpose: description, exploration, tabulation, or decoration; and
  • Be closely integrated with the statistical and verbal descriptions of a data set.


He also claims that: Graphics reveal data. That’s an important point.

I’ve always appreciated the power of a good infographic, but during a recent trip to London I got a fortuitous lesson on the history of the tool when I was introduced to John Snow.

Way back in the 1850s (when, forget Facebook, the first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid), Snow was a skeptic of the then-dominant theory that diseases such as cholera and bubonic plague were caused by pollution or “bad air.” The germ theory of disease had not yet been developed, so Snow did not understand the mechanism by which the disease was transmitted. He first publicized his theory in an 1849 essay, On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, followed by a more detailed treatise in 1855 incorporating the results of his investigation of the role of the water supply in the Soho epidemic of 1854.

By talking to local residents, he identified the source of the outbreak as the public water pump on Broad Street (now Broadwick Street). Although Snow’s examination of a water sample from the Broad Street pump did not conclusively prove its danger, his studies of the pattern of the disease were convincing enough to persuade local officials to disable the well pump by removing its handle. This action has been commonly credited as ending the outbreak.

Snow later used a dot map to illustrate the cluster of cholera cases around the pump. He also used statistics to illustrate the connection between the quality of the water source and cholera cases—showing that the Southwark and Vauxhall Waterworks Company was taking water from sewage-polluted sections of the Thames and delivering the water to homes, leading to an increased incidence of cholera. Snow’s study was a major event in the history of public health and geography. It is regarded as the founding event of the science of epidemiology.

Cool, huh?

Original map by John Snow showing the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854.

Original map by John Snow showing the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854.

Snow’s Soho infographic was simple, but brilliant. By plotting cholera deaths by household, as well as the location of the water pumps, it truly revealed the data that pinpointed the source of that cholera outbreak and identified the sewage-polluted water system as the carrier of the disease.

What else made it a good infographic? Well, by Tufte’s standards, it encouraged the eye to compare different pieces of data (volume and location of cholera deaths vis-à-vis the local water pumps). Though the map doesn’t convey the population of the area, it does show that the largest cluster of deaths was closest to the Broad Street Pump—and as you get further and further away from the pump, deaths were less frequent. In part as a result of this map, when the next big cholera epidemic threatened London, authorities acknowledged that water was the problem and told residents to boil their water. And that was the last cholera outbreak to hit London.

As a communications professional, I’ve helped produce my fair share of infographics for clients. I’ve seen plenty of excellent ones that tick off most or all of Tufte’s criteria. (Check out a few of the latest recognized in The Best American Infographics 2015, featured on Popular Science.) But I’ve also seen some bad infographics. I won’t call any out here, but these examples generally forsake the data for creativity or vice versa.

For me, Tufte’s guidelines and Snow’s work reinforce the importance of the Ogilvy twin peaks of creativity and effectiveness—a driving philosophy that we strive for creativity in the unique ways in which we help our clients solve their problems while, at the same time, focus relentlessly on our effectiveness so we have undeniable proof that our creativity makes a meaningful difference.

Not every infographic is going to save lives, but we should remember that they indeed can.

London, January 2016. Outside the John Snow pub with the plaque recognizing the location of the Broad Street Pump and John Snow’s discovery of in 1854 that cholera is conveyed by water.

London, January 2016. Outside the John Snow pub with the plaque recognizing the location of the Broad Street Pump and John Snow’s discovery in 1854 that cholera is conveyed by water.

Please note: I borrowed liberally from Wikipedia for the background on John Snow and the Soho cholera outbreak.