Rob Holzer remembers the first time he came to Cannes six years ago after starting Matter Unlimited, an agency focusing on ad campaigns that drive positive social change.
“People would sort of just tilt their head nicely and be like, “Oh. That’s nice,” Holzer recalls. “But, like, how are you guys going to make any money?”
Since then, Matter Unlimited has thrived helping brands from Merck to Google to HP find and communicate their purpose. This year, the agency even won a Bronze Lion for PUSH, a video for Merck.
At the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, I talked with Holzer about how brands can take a stand about what they care about.
“Taking a stand is always hard, and especially if you’re a product because you just are so scared to alienate anyone,” Holzer told me. “But you know what’s interesting, especially in today’s political climate that we’re dealing with in 2017, brands don’t really have a choice anymore.”
Check out the full interview below, which was created as part of our Accountable Innovation Series in partnership with Magnet Media, an industry-leading global strategic studio.
Joe Lazauskas: Welcome to Accountable Innovation at Cannes. I’m Joe Lazauskas, editor-in-chief of Contently, and I’m here with Rob Holzer, CEO and founder of Matter Unlimited. But more importantly, the winner of a fresh, brand new bronze lion on Saturday in the healthcare industry. Congratulations first of all.
Rob Holzer: Thank you very much.
Joe: And the work you guys do, it’s focused on enacting positive change. It’s some of the most inspiring and innovative work in the industry. I’ve just loved binging through all of your work examples on your site. But a lot of people would think that’s a handicap from a business model perspective, right? To be so focused on doing work and its positive change. So how do you make that work as a business?
Rob: It’s funny being here in Cannes because I remember the first Cannes that I came to as Matter Unlimited about five, six years ago and I was telling people I’m going to start this agency and we’re only going to do good. We’re only going to work on purpose-led and positive social impact work. And people would sort of just tilt their head nicely and be like, “Oh. That’s nice. But, like, how are you guys going to make any money?”
Joe: Yeah, well but if he’s going to give up on that after six months.
Rob: Right. Right. And it was really my belief that the world was entering into this purpose-led economy, this time where companies are going to have to take a stand on issues. They’re going to have to take a stand on what is actually driving them from a deeper level. Because people are demanding more and more of that from the places that they work and the products that they buy.
So, we hung out our shingle and we started working. And it turns out it’s quite an interesting niche within the market. And we developed a set of expertise where we have a bit more sensitivity and understanding of what drives humanitarian development work around the world. And we bring that to bear on our creative work.
Taking a stand is always hard, and especially if you’re a product because you just are so scared to alienate anyone. But you know what’s interesting, especially in today’s political climate that we’re dealing with in 2017, brands don’t really have a choice anymore.
Joe: And now your talk yesterday was about VR and emerging storytelling formats. I think there’s a load of consensus growing in the industry that VR, while it’s super cool, isn’t showing a lot of returns for brands. That’s this cool thing to do to win some awards, but isn’t necessarily the best investment. So what do you think are some of the keys to making VR really work and be a powerful storytelling format?
Rob: When brands think about trying to drive reach, VR isn’t the best medium. I think that VR is really much more about thinking about your audience, and this is what I was talking about yesterday. You have to think about your audience, and how you’re going to distribute that content. And then what you’re trying to say and what’s the engagement piece after it. So, it’s really great for experiential use.
Joe: Imagine we’re jumping ahead to next year. What’s one big trend that we’re not talking about now that we’re going to be talking about a lot more in 2018?
Rob: We see this kind of, what we sometimes call the purpose-led economy developing and driving. And I see this as a super trend that’s hitting the world. Whether brands want to or not, they can get out in front of it or they can hide their heads in the sand, but it’s coming. And it reminds me a lot when I first started in digital. I remember going into meetings and people would say, “Yeah. The internet, that’s not for us.” I mean, you laugh, but it’s true. It was actually a lot of meetings like that. And it’s funny, you can’t even imagine that now, right? But companies were saying things like that.
So, for me, I think that companies figuring out what their north star is and starting to live according to that and driving all of their communication and all of their work towards something that not only has impact on the bottom line, but can marry financial with societal impact, is going to be much more of a trend as we move forward.