Beto Fernandez and Paco Conde, founders of Activista, speak to LBB’s Addison Capper about operating as a “purpose-driven creative company” and offer up sustainability advice to advertising agencies and brands
When the pandemic swept through the world and an industry reliant on movement ground to a halt, conversations around climate and sustainability became impossible to ignore. In an effort to keep this positive momentum going, UK production company Presence has partnered with LBB to support a brand new Sustainability Channel for essential discussion around green practices and knowledge sharing.
Today we’re speaking to Beto Fernandez and Paco Conde, the founders of Activista, a Los Angeles based, “purpose-driven creative company committed to driving positive change”. The pair have 25 years of experience in the ad industry, most recently at Anomaly Los Angeles prior to launching Activista as part of MDC Partners. The idea for Activista was borne out of a conversation with two founders of that particular Anomaly office.
LBB’s Addison Capper spoke to both Beto and Paco about their personal relationships with sustainability, how they vet potential clients, and their general advice for the ad industry at large.
LBB> This interview is extremely timely, given the release of the IPCC's latest climate report. What were your thoughts when you saw that?
Beto & Paco> The report in a way is not a surprise. We just need to look around us to see the impacts of climate change are already affecting us - the fires destroying great parts of California, Australia and more recently Greece. The drastic increases of droughts and famine in Africa and Asia. The extreme weather-related floods in China and Germany. But the report is crucial because we never had such a clear picture of the terrible future ahead of us. Either we change fast on a global scale or the consequences will be much more devastating.
LBB> Have clients come to you as a direct result of that report? How so?
Beto & Paco> As a matter of fact we are working directly with the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), the global development network of the United Nations, in a project about Climate Change. Alongside with the IPCC Report, this campaign will be part of a series of initiatives from the UN to help countries lead the way for the needed change. It will be the biggest campaign they've ever done, and we are honoured to be part of it.
LBB> You have both worked in agencies throughout your careers. What inspired you to step out of that traditional world and set up something with such a clear ethos like this?
Beto & Paco> We have over 25 years of experience in advertising, most of the time working separately in different agencies around the globe. Eight years ago we started working together as a team and our first assignment was a purpose driven project for Unilever relaunching the Real Beauty concept. That became the most impactful work we have done so far, and made us understand the power of meaningful ideas to provoke real change.
LBB> Tell me a bit about both of your personal relationships and journeys with sustainability.
Beto> My personal connection with sustainability started as a child, being raised in Curitiba, Brazil where they always had public policies about recycling and composting. Now living in Los Angeles I’ve been collaborating with organisations like Surfrider helping the fight for our oceans with both creative campaigns but also joining meetings and beach clean ups. Also I’ve been trying to commute mainly with electric bikes - actually I’ve been living for a year without cars. And now with the economy fully reopening, I'll buy an electric car.
Paco> Alice Walker said that ‘activism is my rent for living on the planet’. As an individual, I pay my rent trying to reduce the negative impact of my actions on the environment and supporting some NGOs. As a professional, our ideas are our actions. We use our creativity to help brands and organisations to take action for the planet and inspire others to do it.
LBB> And tell me a bit about the foundation of Activista. When did the idea begin for you both? How did you go about forming the ethos and approach that you were going to take as an agency?
Beto & Paco> Since the beginning of our partnership we’ve been always trying to convince brands to create purpose-driven work in the many different agencies we’d worked. And we felt in the last years that the demand for that kind of project has been growing, due to an audience every day more interested in the topic, especially with Gen Z becoming a strong part of brands’ consumers. When we were leading the Anomaly Los Angeles office, the founders of the agency, Carl Johnson and Mike Byrne, inspired by the work that we had been doing, approached us with the idea of creating a unique agency focused on purpose driven work. Together we built the business model, the strategy and the identity of the agency.
LBB> How do you define the agency’s ethos?
Beto & Paco> We believe nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. A great number of consumers are expecting brands to take a stand on important issues like climate change, equal rights for women, Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+. So Activista can fit this gap in the market, being a company fully committed to provoking change through the power of ideas.
LBB> Given your aim as an agency, how do you decide which clients you will and won't work with? How do you vet their sustainability?
Beto & Paco> We are mindful of the clients we work with. As we always say, we are looking for brands that are the ‘real deal’, meaning brands that are truly committed to provoking some positive change, and not the ones that want to take advantage of a topic just because of its popularity. There are many cases of greenwashing, pink washing, and we try to avoid them. Our initial meeting with a client is always a great metric to see if we can work together. Our creative process starts on making tough and important questions from the beginning so usually this first step helps us to identify the right partners. This is also important because we measure the quality of our ideas through the impact they generate, and without true commitment from the company this is hard to achieve.
LBB> Do you also work with clients that maybe aren't sustainable in their practices but want to become more so? If so, how does that work?
Beto & Paco> There are no perfect brands. Not even Patagonia. So, we don’t look for perfection, but for commitment. If the brand is really engaged on the project, interested in provoking real change, then we believe there is a lot of value in working together, even if the brand is not 100% perfect. Sustainability is a tough issue because it involves many different aspects of production so even for companies deeply committed with the topic it is complex to be sure all the procedures are correct. It takes time for a complete change and the planet cannot wait. So our decision is to analyse the impact that the project might generate, if it is real and positive or if it’s simply a marketing trick. And then we avoid the second option.
LBB> With that last question in mind, do you see a place for something like "sustainability transformation consultants" moving forward? Maybe they already exist? They sound much more worthwhile than a "digital transformation consultant"!
Beto & Paco> Sustainability is a fundamental part of the future of our lives, and it must become a reality for all of us, even more for the companies that generate a massive footprint on the planet. We need new paradigms of production that are based on clean energy. And we need consumers demanding for the changes that really matter. Unfortunately a minority of both truly understands what’s needed and what can be done. Therefore the idea of consultant support is very welcome.
LBB> What advice do you have for brands when it comes to creating briefs with sustainability in mind?
Beto & Paco> We always say to our clients ‘don’t choose a cause, the cause will choose you’. The way to work in a purpose driven strategy is to find something that already has a great synergy with the brand. In the product line, ways of production, in the history of the company, specific impact on the environment or in the consumer behaviour there must be the directions to know how to navigate the path to the sustainability brief.
LBB> Since working this way, how have you been inspired to change any of your own habits for a more sustainable way of living?
Beto & Paco> Since we started working with Activista we’ve been much more mindful about all the things we do. Our choices and our actions impact the planet we live in much more than we could think. If politics are slow in making changes we can speed them up with our choices. From eating less meat, using clean energy in our houses and ways of transportation to the choice of brands we decide to interact with. We need to be the change we want to see in the world.
LBB> And finally, when it comes to tackling such a huge topic as sustainability, what advice do you have for the wider ad industry on where to start and how to keep up momentum?
Beto & Paco> One of the pieces of advice that we always give is Make It Bite Size. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Climate change is a very wide and complex issue with many fronts open and enemies to fight against. On the bright side, there’s a lot of smaller bites we need to take to tackle it. The first step is to pick one and create change there. Then move on to the next, and the next and so on.