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UNICEF at 70: A New Campaign Shows How UNICEF is Giving Children Hope

Marcel Sydney’s Holly Alexander and director Simon Lister on a huge rebrand and meeting the children whose childhoods have been protected

UNICEF at 70: A New Campaign Shows How UNICEF is Giving Children Hope

This week in New York, UNICEF unveiled a huge creative rebrand, a stirring new hero film and a new archive of hundreds of photographs of children whose lives have been changed thanks to the organisation. The theme of this new work is hope and it shows children living life to the fullest despite living in difficult environments, reinforcing the positive change that UNICEF has enacted around the world. This isn’t about manipulative ‘sadvertising’ – it’s about the important and life-changing projects that the organisation is involved with.

Behind this global campaign is some of Australia’s leading creative talent. The team at Marcel Sydney led the rebrand and the film and library of stills were shot by Simon Lister (who you may also know as the Creative Director of Nylon Studios). Simon travelled to Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, Lebanon, Ethiopia and Mexico with UNICEF’s Angus Ingham, and over the course of five weeks they visited schools, hospitals and villages to meet children whose precious childhoods had been protected.

LBB’s Laura Swinton spoke to Marcel Sydney’s head of production Holly Alexander and director Simon Lister to find out more about this inspiring project.

LBB> What was the brief from Unicef?

Holly> To say this one was a complicated brief would be an understatement (even though the ultimate answer appears very simple!). Externally, UNICEF is involved in children's welfare in over 190 countries. To create a message genuinely relevant and purposeful to a myriad of cultures and applicable to so many applications was daunting. We were aided by a fantastically well informed (and patient) client that helped us navigate the layers of global stakeholders who had to embrace and endorse our campaign. From the outset, it was made abundantly clear that this campaign is for the long run. It has to make as much sense in a decade as it does today. 

LBB> In terms of the rebrand, what was the key driving force behind it? And what message or ideas were Unicef keen to get across? What sort of research and planning did you do?

Holly> It would be easy to assume that with a project of this scale we did months of research and planning but the reality is that Unicef is an organisation that needs to react very quickly, so the same thing was true for our production. We had itineraries changing right up to the day Simon flew. While he was in the field shooting, different field locations would open up and fortunately Simon was working very nimbly so he was able to react quickly. All guided by the expert field teams. 

For me the real beauty of this project was the ‘found’ element. Typically we would recce locations, cast characters and faces, spend time art directing the frame. With this project there was none of that in the sense that Simon would arrive at locations and meet people for the first time and film them. It is a testament both to the incredible locations and people he came across as he travelled and to Simon’s ability to find the extraordinary in what others would see as the ordinary. It takes a special kind of person to see that.

LBB> This is a project with a global reach and one that has to engage with people of all cultures – did that present any interesting challenges?

Holly> There were many interesting challenges on this project for sure, but what was always paramount to us, Simon and, of course, to the incredible Unicef teams that Simon travelled with, was to film the children and their families in a respectful way – in a way that honoured them. That’s how our film manages to transcend cultures, borders, differences. It is impossible to watch our film and not feel inspired by the joy and spirit in the faces of the children, even at the same time as you recognise the unbelievable hardships they have to endure.

LBB> What did Simon bring to the final project?

Holly> In a word, heart. To meet Simon is to understand that there honestly wasn’t a better person for the job. There isn’t a more generous, open, warm person than Simon and that was so important for this project for a bunch of reasons. These were really sensitive situations we were sending him into and he needed to be the kind of person the children opened up to, felt safe with. He was welcomed into their homes and their lives and so it was incredibly important that the filmmaker be someone that didn’t ‘intrude’. It’s how he managed to film such breath-taking footage. And the truth is our film is 90 seconds long but we have hours and hours of the most unbelievable film.

These kinds of projects are also true labours of love – they often involve super long schedules (we have been working on this project since April), the budgets are difficult, the material is sometimes fraught, so we were thankful that Simon was so committed. Unwaveringly so.

And then of course his cinematography. My answer won’t do it justice but to think he was literally a one-man band with a backpack and a camera, and then to look at what he captured, we should all be so lucky as to have some of his talent.

LBB> Simon, how did you get involved in the project?

Simon> This has been my first commissioned project by a client, but for the past 13 years I’ve been going off around the world to take pictures. It’s about exploring different places, going into slums and taking pictures of people in their environment. I’ve been all through India, the Himalayas, the Sahara Desert, Mexico, Mongolia. Last year I went to Bangladesh and I put a project together with Nobby [David Nobay, Marcel Sydney founder] for the ABC Art Breaks, and they showed that to the UNICEF guys, who he had a relationship with. They liked what they saw and they invited me to be involved in this project and shoot all the brand photographs and the TV commercial. 

We finished filming about six weeks ago. For Unicef we did Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, Lebanon, Ethiopia and Mexico. From that I was asked to remake their photo library that their 193 offices can use for their marketing and social media. Marcel produced the campaign.

LBB> What was the production like?

Simon> I took all the photos myself and filmed everything myself – we had no crew. We had a film camera, a stills camera, a drone and a 360 camera as well. The days would start at 5.30am and we’d shoot till about 6pm and then we’d spend the evening downloading and recharging, getting everything ready for the next day. We did that every day for five weeks.

LBB> So this is very much a passion thing for you – how does that fit around your ‘day job’ running Nylon Studios?

Simon> This is what I do, it’s a passion job. I’ve got my business, Nylon Studios, and it’s going strong. I’ve had that for about 15 years.

But I just love taking portraits of people in any situation. I’ve been to far flung slums, I’ve set up on a train going into Dakar, I’ve shot on rubbish tips and all sorts of full-on situations. And I love meeting the people; they have so little but they have so much in the way of life. It’s not about cars and houses, it’s purely about the person. That’s what engages me to do these kinds of trips. And the harder to get to the better! I love having to get to places off-road on my motorbike. 

I do these trips a couple of times a year and it’s great that I can go off and do those trips and know that the company is in good hands and going strong. This particular trip has been fantastic for us as we did the music and we had Lisa Gerrard sing on it. She’s an incredible singer; Hans Zimmer uses her a lot. She sang on Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, and she’s one of the most famous vocalists in the film industry. 

LBB> The theme of the film and the rebrand is hope, which is an optimistic and inspiring message. Why was that important to capture, rather than, say, the traditional 'sadvertising' approach?

Holly> That’s an interesting question and one that I was talking about at the launch with a few people. I think people are desensitised these days to the ‘sadvertising’ approach – we see it every day on our computers, our phones. We are constantly manipulated by it. But that really wasn’t the reason we didn’t go down that route. These are incredibly proud, strong, hopeful people. In spite of their hardships, I think we managed to film them in a way that shows their true spirits and how incredibly resilient they are. It wouldn’t have done them justice to film them any other way.

Simon> Something that’s really evident is that UNICEF are doing things to make a change. We went to a Syrian refugee camp and you’d walk into these tents and there would be 100 children there all studying. They were all engaging in education like they would be at home, even though they were displaced and not in their home environment. I know they are living in difficult circumstances, but you could see that Unicef was really spending some great money and really helping them.

I did a trip around the world 25 years ago and I went to Mozambique and an AIDS-affected region in Uganda, and back then people were dying, there were sick children everywhere. But over the years it’s felt like maybe we’re getting something. I know there’s the Syrian refugee crisis. I know there are problems in South Sudan. But we are eradicating diseases, there’s a good feeling.

We didn’t want to show children with flies on their faces, suffering in hospitals. We wanted to show children around the world happy, living life as best they can whatever their environment. We wanted to reach images that go straight to your heart. Rather than being manipulative.

What was great as well was that the Unicef staff were crying when they saw the images. They’re not doing this for the money, they don’t get paid much, they’re doing this purely out of compassion for children. For them to be so emotionally affected by this stuff meant it was going to their heart. 

LBB> There's been a huge global launch in New York this week – what was that like?

Holly> Inspiring and humbling. It wasn’t without its star factor – we had David Beckham, Orlando Bloom, Jackie Chan, Millie Bobbi Brown, Angélique Kidjo all speak on the night, which of course was cool. But the really mind blowing part of the night was to hear from the people whose lives UNICEF has saved. From former child soldiers, to young women living with HIV who were shunned from their villages and families, to small boys who walked from Syria to Germany, through Greece. To be honest, coming into this project, I had had limited experience with UNICEF and now knowing more about what they do with children around the world, I feel like I will work with them in some capacity for the rest of my life. 

Simon> It’s an amazing thing to be part of and to see my photos up at the event was amazing. We’ve managed to give them a lovely library and we’re talking about our next project together for next year, whatever that is. Nylon is my bread and butter and it’s a very important wheel I’ve got to keep turning. But this is my passion work and I’m lucky enough to be in a situation to do that.

LBB> And what were the residing memories of the production

Holly> Just how grateful and hopeful we should be. It is such a cynical world we live in, particularly in advertising. But at the risk of sounding sappy, it’s projects like this one that throw what we do into perspective. Last night there were a lot of people thanking us for the film but honestly I feel like I owe UNICEF the thanks. What an honour to be brought into the fold. And what a fold it is.