29th Apr 2022
On 16th March 2022 co-founder of Rooftop Productions Richard Ahlfeldt joined our CEO Melanie Chevalier to discuss how purpose led brands can make an impact on local markets.
Rooftop Productions is a South Africa based, purpose-led global strategy, branding, content and production agency. Working with NGOs that want to change mindsets and drive change by creating impactful communications and campaigns.
Melanie: Hello and welcome to the Creative Culture Podcast interview series. Today we’re delighted to be speaking to Richard Ahlfeldt, co-founder and managing director of Rooftop Productions. Rooftop is an African European global purpose-led strategy, branding, content and production agency that helps mostly NGOs that want to change mindsets and drive change by creating impactful comms and campaigns. We’ve worked together on multi market client projects for UNICEF, UNESCO and other UN organisations. In this episode, Richard will talk about what impact means and how they have enabled clients to make progressive changes in an international context. Welcome, Richard. Hi, how are you today?
Richard: I’m well, thank you.
Melanie: Good. Would you perhaps kick off our conversation by telling us a little bit more about yourself, why you started Rooftop and what you do in general?
Richard: Sure. Yeah. I’m South African born. I’m father to three amazing children, and I’m based here in South Africa, and I’m really such a passionate South African. I love the outdoors and I also love the media and what communications can do and how it makes an impact. It can make an impact in the world. And that’s actually how I started Rooftop very young at the time, actually only 19 years old. And Rooftop has been going for 19 years this year to give away my age. But yeah, I started Rooftop because I believed that video and media could really make a positive impact in people’s lives. And it’s been quite a journey over those 19 years. But it’s something I really believed in. And this is in an era way before Internet video even existed, before YouTube, when videos were still on VHS and DVD. Yeah. I saw the opportunity in terms of how powerful the communication with video and how it could impact people. And that’s why I started Rooftop. Today, in terms of what I do, I’m very involved with building strategy with customers and building our relationship with our customers, as well as looking at the solutions that would really move the needle on the issues that our customers are working on. And so it’s very relationship driven, but it’s also looking and asking the really hard questions and helping our clients develop the right solutions for them.
Melanie: Very nice. I always thought I was young when I started my business, but I was 25, so it’s quite a bit older compared to you. So mostly NGOs, your clients or there are also mixed. And also in terms of geographies, is it predominantly Africa or do you cross borders in different regions?
Richard: Yeah. Rooftops client base today is global. We work with clients around the world, and they are mostly NGOs and large governmental types of organisations. It wasn’t always like this. My journey actually started in advertising. For the first ten years of Rooftop, that was really my main focus was in marketing and advertising. And it was only when I was given an opportunity to shoot a music video for UNICEF in Namibia in 2014 that I started to see the world in quite a different light, and that the work that Rooftop was doing could actually make an impact in communities and people’s lives in a more tangible way. So on that point, Rooftop started growing a more international client base. But as an African based business, we do predominantly work in third world countries in terms of the issues that we communicate on. But the client base is based everywhere.
Melanie: Nice. And what has driven your ambition to want to create impact, change mindsets? Where does that come from?
Richard: It’s a good question. I think it was in this kind of way of finding your purpose, why do you start a business? When I was growing up, I really saw a lot of people work and really look kind of dissatisfied family members and people that I was interacting with. So I kind of decided at a young age that I was going to start my own business, and I was going to do something I was really passionate about but not only that, I really wanted to participate in something that actually meant something for people. So Rooftop was never started with the goal of just making profit or making money. It was always about, how can we add value to society? So doing something that reaches people and makes a difference is kind of really born because the original seed that was kind of planted when Rooftop started. Because I think today, if you’re working and you spend so much time at work, we spend more time at work than we do with our children. If we’re not working on things that we are really deeply passionate about or can get excited about, I think it’s a bit of a waste.
Richard: It’s a bit of a waste of life. So it’s kind of an intrinsic driver for me to press into what I’m really passionate about. And I think what’s amazing is that with the clients that Rooftop’s working with now, we really have these incredible opportunities to really look at the topics and the issues that Rooftop has to communicate on a day to day basis. And these things are now connected. It wasn’t just a lofty idea at the beginning just to run a business that’s making a difference. It’s actually a sustainable business 19 years down the road.
Melanie: That’s very nice. You’ve been in space for a while now, and it feels like the purpose led movement has become fairly global over the recent years. How have you seen it change throughout time over the years?
Richard: It’s so true. And I think over the years, I think as society, we’re becoming more and more connected through social media and through media itself. And I think we’re living in a world where you can’t ignore issues like climate change and some of the issues really facing society. What’s been happening is, I think it’s galvanised people, especially young people, who are asking the questions more and more about what brands are doing about the environment, what are brands actually standing for? It’s not just about the product today. It’s about looking forward in terms of our futures and the world we want to live in and how brands are shaping that and whether they’re doing good or not. So the purpose led or the social impact that organisations are doing are becoming more and more important. And over the years, it’s something that you can’t just talk about anymore. Customers, people in the market are actually looking for leaders and for leadership, and they’re looking for people who are actually making a stand and doing something. It’s moved from something organisations, I think, have always tried to do good, but now it’s actually looking at the organisations that are actually making an impact and consumers actually changing their behaviours and their decisions to align with organisations that have the same values and care about the same things.
Melanie: Obviously, in some of the regions that you work in, like Africa predominantly, there is definitely a need for this to be put to the fore. But do you find or have you found over the years that there is a different perception that perhaps in some countries, some companies or some people might be a little less open to the purpose that brands and companies can put to the floor?
Richard: That’s a very good question. Can you repeat the question again just so I can understand if you want me to speak more of the context from some of the African kind of point of view on this topic, can you just repeat the question again?
Melanie: Yeah, sure. The idea is really to look at the purpose of movement, which obviously with projects like what you’re doing with UNICEF and Biomes, for example, there really is a need in society for companies or NGOs to really drive change and progress. But have you found that it’s more challenging in some areas of Africa because potentially people are not ready or they don’t feel that it’s the priority? Typically, when we talk about the triple bottom line of profit people on the planet, there are also some economic sort of factors in African countries where the perception might be that the first P of profit is probably the most important.
Richard: Absolutely. And in some places where people are really just trying to survive and where the survival and there isn’t basic things like food or water to not meet people’s basic needs and trying to create change or trying to create, try and create impact in society on topics that aren’t necessarily the priorities of the people, it does become really challenging, rooftops being very fortunate and I’ve also been really fortunate to travel quite extensively across Africa and actually creates content on different issues within communities. And often it’s not with bad intentions that brands or businesses are coming into communities wanting to do work on certain topics that they care about. But often there is a disconnect between what the community actually is facing in terms of its issues and how people come in and try to deal with another issue that might be less of a priority. Often when I’ve actually been on the ground and I’ve experienced these kinds of things happening on the ground, it’s often people taking a Western mindset of how we see a problem or an issue and how we think it should be solved. And we often bring that into a community before really understanding or listening to those people who are living in that space and trying to understand the problem.
Richard: I think society, especially in Africa, is facing so many difficult challenges. It’s often a lot more complex than what it looks like on the outside. The child marriage example is actually a really good one when child marriage is actually one of the first topics that I had to work with UNICEF with. And I remember the day I got to work with a specialist on the topic and before making one of our first videos in Chad, and it was just before the trip, before the whole team went to Chad to actually make the video. I thought it was just an issue of choice, maybe it was just the parents who are deciding to marry their children off. The issues like child marriage is actually linked to so many different things and the specialist was just saying to us, it’s actually linked more to food insecurity. When families get so desperate for food, some of the only decisions they have is to actually marry off their daughters so that they could have the income to buy enough food to eat. So, often it goes a lot deeper and I think organisations and brands, whoever is doing work in communities who want to drive change really need to spend the time to actually listen and understand the context of these problems and how to really go about doing work that could result in change without coming in and putting what we think works or what we think is right.
Richard: It’s something I’ve had to learn over the last seven years. Working with these organisations, you’ve got to really be careful of your mindset and you’ve got to almost take your thoughts and opinions away and become a really good listener at first, because I think if you’re really going to be serious about driving change and impact on a community level, you really have to know and feel the problem and understand it fully before you can engage with it.
Melanie: Absolutely. It requires quite a lot of cultural sensitivity, right. To go into those communities because there’s an element of driving change in progress that means you will be disruptive. And the aim of what you’re putting to the floor is to be disruptive. But you also have to be respectful of the reality and what’s happening in the market, whether, as you say, it’s related to economics and the situation of the families who are in great desperation or even culturally because some elements are also what is acceptable in one country might not be in another type scenario, but with regards to child marriage actually in “Vaillante” and this is a really great fiction that you’ve put together with and for UNICEF, which we’ve worked on together. And I think that really portrays some of those reasons in society of why this phenomenon is happening. And actually it is still a very big issue, particularly in Western Africa. There was a study last year that was run in 31 sub Saharan countries and there is still 44.5% of women who are married before they turn 18. So they are still children. Can you tell us a bit more about this project by “Vaillante”.
Richard: Yeah, absolutely. I’m so passionate about this project and like I was saying earlier, child marriage is one of the first topics that I ever got to work on and then when I realized that the situation and the issue is so big, three out of five girls getting married before the age of 18 in some of these countries, it’s quite serious and how it really does change these girls lives because they get married, they don’t get to finish school. The lost potential when a girl doesn’t get educated across Africa, it’s just so devastating when girls are especially forced into marriage as well. So this project was actually born out of just observing ways of communication in poorer countries where this issue of child marriage is really prevalent. The question I asked myself years ago was how are we going to actually reach this audience and how are we going to actually get a message that gets to the parents who get to the right people? And then that’s when I was looking at how, how much the penetration of TV and radio is across Africa, and it’s still such an important and such a major form of medium of communication.
Richard: And it was kind of them that I was wanting to look at how storytelling and how film making and how can we get this message into the homes of people versus just relying on social media? And that’s where this TV series idea where we follow fictional characters. But we really go in depth to the issue around child marriage and how it affects women’s lives and we looked at it from so many different perspectives, from a community level, from a cultural perspective and all these different nuances in the issue and we wrote a three part series and it took us about four years to produce it in terms of casting it and putting it together, forming, working with country offices where child marriage is an issue, to make sure the content was going to be relevant to those audiences. And that’s where we had that done. On the 8 March this year, it started airing on Canal Plus and a whole lot of local broadcasters to actually get the story into homes, which I’m really hoping it’s going to continue to create the conversation around child marriage and the issue.
Melanie: Absolutely. And it’s a really good piece that we recommend. I’ve watched all of it since it’s been finalised, and I very much enjoyed it. Obviously, being French Speaker, it was much easier for me to follow, I guess, because it’s in French language, but it’s subtitled, obviously, and really interesting and insightful. Is there a project in particular that you’re very proud of that you’d like to share, where there was this element of trying to drive change, create progress, where there was a fine line between taking a risk but then creating real impact, and it being really rewarding.
Richard: There is actually a project we’ve actually been working with WHO on a lot of health issues, and the one project that stands out was a project for World No Tobacco Day and before working with WHO, I didn’t realise how many people die every year, and the number is 8 million people who die every year from tobacco and it’s such a difficult topic for a foreign health agency to actually get communication and awareness around the issue. I think everybody is aware of packaging and labels and everywhere you go, I think society knows that tobacco can kill people, so there’s this really high risk. But when I was given the brief to put together a campaign for World No Tobacco Day, I really didn’t want to create a campaign that just targets people who use tobacco and make people feel guilty, like so many health campaigns do, it’s so important that these brands that are working on really important issues that are facing society to do something that stands out. And I think what makes it really tough is that even though this is a health campaign, it does need to kind of reach a whole lot of people, and it needs to stand out.
Richard: And there are so many competing brands. There’s so many competing issues like climate change. How does something like tobacco really stand out? So we often get really pushed on these issues that we communicate as rooftop so that they do stand out and often it means thinking out of the box and pushing boundaries and this year that I’m talking about, we looked at the tactics that tobacco companies are using to increase their sales, and a lot of the tactics were driven around targeting youth. So we did something really bold with the campaign. It was really risky at the proposal phase as the key visual for the campaign, we put a child smoking on the front cover. Which is a real no no for WHO to actually show a child smoking, but the image was so hard hitting and when we put together the campaign and we started showing people that the tobacco industry is targeting children, and these are the tactics that they’re using to grow a new customer base, it was quite a shocking campaign as well and did incredibly well on World No Tobacco Day itself. The impressions went over 4 billion impressions across all the social media channels on the day because it was something that really stood out.
Richard: It obviously created a lot of tension, attention as well, but I think brands and organisations have to become a bit braver when it comes to tackling some of the issues. If you want to be seen and heard, it’s maybe quite an extreme example, but it really highlights that to reach new audiences, you really do have to step out of the norm. The previous years, No Tobacco Day, they always focus on a finger pointing kind of campaign at consumers and this one was more about showing people the health risks, especially to younger people, which is really different and it was a major success at the end because we were willing to do something a bit more riskier, so to speak.
Melanie: Yes, that’s certainly paid off. That is quite a lot of impressions and hopefully a message that has definitely crossed borders in that sense. Richard, firstly, thank you very much for your time today. It was super insightful, and it was a pleasure to have you. I hear a lot of messages behind what you’re saying, and I’ll let you wrap up with a few tips. But some of the things you said that really resonated with me were around how to do this right, how to lead purpose led campaigns and messages about authenticity. It’s about listening to what’s happening on the ground, understanding the reality of the market and the situation before engaging in any of these conversations. But also in this case, the last example you mentioned is also about being bold and sometimes taking those risks that will really pay off because you are in a sea of a lot of content and a lot of data that is running around, and you need to stand out so that your message really is impactful. Do you want to share a few last tips to wrap up?
Richard: Yeah, sure. And I think one of the biggest things maybe is to be genuine, like you actually said, authentically, being authentic and to really care about the issue that you’re trying to communicate on. I think so often we know issues are important, but I think we’ve kind of needed to increase how much we actually care about it and I think we’ve got to allow ourselves to become more proximate to the issue we’re trying to communicate on. I think when there’s genuine care and concern for the issue and it’s something you almost make it more personal, you’re really able to invest yourself and push yourself, I suppose, because you care deeply about what you’re doing. The results are actually going to be much greater than just doing it because maybe it’s important and I think often that’s a missed opportunity to get really passionate about something, even at first, if it’s not something you’re initially passionate about. I just encourage people to dive into the issue. I think so many of these social issues, whether it be water, nutrition, healthcare, education, there’s actually so many things to get really passionate about and even if the opportunities you have, maybe as a brand or as a communicator to do work on communications that are making an impact, even if they’re small, I think the small opportunities that we have to communicate on these issues are often the ones that have some of the biggest impact.
Richard: Another possible tip would be also to start small when it comes to if you’re going to work on something that has a social impact, don’t necessarily wait for a big cause or a big project or a big opportunity. I think it’s often the smaller opportunities that we get really excited about and we do something about them that often creates the biggest change.
Melanie: Brilliant! Thank you so much, Richard. It’s been really inspiring and for everybody else, thank you very much for listening. We hope you enjoyed this episode and you can find more on our website creativecultureint.com under our insights section. Let’s make culture work for you.
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