WHEN MIKE RIOS moved to Cambodia in 2008, he quickly found a job as what he describes as a “creative adman,” creating advertising campaigns at a multinational agency for the likes of Coca-Cola, Total Gas and Tiger Beer.
“I originally came to Cambodia to volunteer for an NGO, but when the big job offer came, I couldn’t refuse,” recalled Rios, when Focus Asean caught up with him in Phnom Penh.
The 32-year-old was born in Seoul, South Korea. But at just six months old, he was adopted by an American couple and grew up in Michigan.
“I had a very happy childhood with my parents [in the US]. I got my mum’s heart and my dad’s business brain,” he said.
“When I first came to Cambodia I went to an orphanage – which, in retrospect, was probably fake – and it made me feel for the first time how lucky I am to be adopted. I realised with a flip of the cards, any of those kids could have been me. I got incredibly lucky and given every opportunity and it made me want to give back.”
After a year and half at the multinational, he was asked if he wanted to be its youngest creative director. He refused and subsequently quit his job. “My conscience caught up with me,” he admits with a smile.
I was making great money, but I came to the country originally to use my creative skills for good. It hit me I wasn’t actually helping anyone.
Alongside his business partner, Lillian Diaz, a former USAID staffer and microfinance expert, Rios then co-founded 17 Triggers – an advertising agency that primarily works with the development sector.
“Originally Lilly hired me for some freelance work, but we quickly realised we loved working together. One day while having drinks we asked ourselves, why not start a marketing agency for good?” he said. “Instead of selling beer and cigarettes, we wanted to focus 100% on good causes.”
One of its first projects was working with an insurance company that wanted to increase the number of rural farmers in Vietnam buying drought insurance. It seemed simple enough: understand the product and then develop the advertising and sales tools needed to show the farmers how they could buy insurance and make a claim.
But, as Rios and Diaz quickly learned, the project was far from simple. “We had put a lot of thought into it, along with our client, but what was missing was putting ourselves in the farmer’s shoes,” he said.
“How does the rural farmer make it to Ho Chi Minh City to claim back his money? If he makes it to the city, how does he find the insurance company’s office? He probably doesn’t have Google Maps and has probably never been to the city before.
And even if he does find the office, he most likely won’t have all of the documents he needs, so he has to go home and return yet again. The worst part was that even if he could somehow file a claim, by this time he would receive money from all his other crops would have been lost to the drought.”
The pilot project, which was eventually cancelled, was a well-needed wakeup call for the fledgling company. Afterwards they stepped back, reassessed the situation and came to the conclusion that it was not enough to just “create ads and sell products for good.”
They needed to look into how services and systems catering for the poor are designed and, equally important, try to make the systems dramatically better.
Five years on, 17 Triggers is now a company very much in demand. Having grown to a team of almost 20 people, it has worked in 16 countries on nearly 100 projects. Its client list includes UNICEF Global, Friends-International, iDE, Lucky Iron Fish, the MTV Foundation and several governments. A strapline on its website reads:
Whether you want to sell more solar lights, train farmers faster, redesign a health care system, or create a campaign to trigger millions to use toilets, we can help
“17 Triggers designs services for the poor, which actually work for the poor,” explained Rios. “Take a look at the private sector. Companies, such as Uber, design their services so remarkable that customers brag about it. In the social or development sector, services for the poor are typically the opposite. They are often filled with so many headaches they make renewing your driving license look like a pleasurable experience.”
For Rios, when governments and development organisations make programmes or systems, they aren’t aiming high enough. “It seems some people have an attitude of ‘[we] just built it and we did our jobs’, but what if, instead, we made it mandatory to make services that people love to use?” he asked.
While this is their ideal, Rios and Diaz have seen that ‘creating delight’ in development is no simple feat.
“This year the private sector will spend $600 billion – triple the entire development aid budget – on triggering you to change your behaviours. The hidden architects behind this force are millions of designers and marketers. You wouldn’t know it, but they are shaping the way entire countries think, move and act,” said Rios.
“But in the development sector, designers and marketers are practically non-existent. It’s still shocking to me to think that outside of 17 Triggers, I can count on one hand how many creative admen I’ve met who work full-time for good causes.”
With so few marketers and designers in the sector, 17 Triggers believe its role is not just about providing services to organisations, it is also to change the way the entire field thinks about and values marketing.
“Too many people think marketing is only about designing logos, brochures, or comic books,” he continued. “But that’s just the tip of the iceburg. Marketing is really about understanding what your customers actually want and figuring out how to make it easy for them to act. A brochure or comic book is just a part of a means to the end, but it should never be a stand-alone solution. Even more, it shouldn’t be an answer without knowing the real problems.”
It is not just about changing how organisations work. As Rios put it: “Really, anyone who works for an NGO or for a government is trying to change behaviour, whether it’s the behaviour of a government official or a poor farmer”.
“Unfortunately, most people aren’t very good at changing other people’s behaviours. Just look at a doctor trying to get someone to quit smoking. There’s a lot of information about behavioural science out there but often it is complicated and people don’t read it.”
But what Rios and others at 17 Triggers did read has stuck with them. Underpinning much of the work the organisation does is the principle of change management – a concept developed by numerous academics.
In his influential book, The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt described a duality within each of us. Everyone has an ‘elephant’ and ‘elephant rider’ inside of them, he posited. The ‘rider’, which represents rational thinking, is often seen as being in control of the ‘elephant’, a person’s irrational and emotional side. But, according to Haidt and Rios, this is simply not true.
Our emotions actually control our behaviour, and then we rationalise these emotions to suit what we have doneMike Rios
“So all of this is to say that a lot previous economic theory is flawed, because humans aren’t always rational beings, and the systems and services designed for us are also designed for the rational side, so they don’t always work,” Rios said.
Borrowing from Haidt’s proposition, Chip and Dan Heath, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business and a Senior Fellow at Duke University’s CASE center, respectively, developed a third part of the scenario: the ‘path’.
“A reluctant elephant and a wheel-spinning rider can both ensure that nothing changes. But when elephants and riders move together, change can come easily,” they wrote in their bestselling work, Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard.
It is, therefore, the responsibility of governments, NGOs and businesses to create the ‘paths’ for change, linking the goals of both the emotional ‘elephant’ and rational ‘rider’.
“Advertising agencies and professionals are very good at touching on and changing the irrational, emotional side of the people,” said Rios, meaning that they are able to develop a ‘path’ for the emotional side to follow.
For example, he explained, some advertising agencies hit upon the fact that if a supermarket plays French music, customers will buy French wine more often, but few people would say the music influenced their decision.
Recently, 17 Triggers was hired to create a TV commercial to raise awareness about helmet safety in Cambodia – traffic accidents remain one of the biggest killers in the Kingdom. Late last year, the government introduced a new law that means all passengers, as well as the driver, must wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle.
For Rios, creating the TV commercial should be the last step, not the sole intervention. “The TV commercial on it’s own will unfortunately have very little impact if the new law is not 100% enforced. Where 17 Triggers could really add value is working with the government to help them make sure the law is followed and understand the reasons why it might not be,” he said.
For example, Rios mused, what if some traffic police did not want to give fines because of the hassle of doing lengthy paperwork, or if other officers were worried about ‘giving too many tickets’ because they think their boss will be angry with them?
Finding these small hidden problems in systems and curing them is what marketing and design is all about.Rios said.
In another project, 17 Triggers worked with an NGO to try to get more new mothers to use health centres in their communities.
“A mother (as an elephant rider) may know about taking care of their baby, and emotionally (the elephant), they want to, but what’s the path that will allow them to do this?” Rios said.
“The first path might be guided by the midwife. So they might say, ‘the baby must have a clean umbilical cord.’ But what does that mean? How do they know what a clean umbilical cord looks like? So the midwife has to lay the path.”
“This first step on the path is the most important. By looking at the path of how a mother takes care of her baby or the path of how police do a functioning ticketing system, you can change human behaviour. By changing how you educate children at a young age, you change their emotions and behaviour,” he added.
The first step does not need to be complicated. For example, in a programme aimed at increasing the number of visits to local health centres by new mothers, 17 Triggers decided upon putting stickers on mothers’ phones with the name and number of a health centre on it.
“Every time they looked at their phones, they saw the number and information,” said Rios. As a result, 17 Triggers observed higher rates of mothers returning to the centres.
None of this is rocket scienceMike Rios
“That’s why we use the simple elephant-elephant rider analogy – the private sector uses it all the time, so too do the design firms that businesses pay a lot of money to help sell their products.”
As for 17 Trigger’s future, Rios is optimistic about the future.
“More and more organisations are bringing us in at the beginning of a project and saying ‘We have a problem, we have no idea how to solve it, can you help?’ and this is the perfect place for us to play in,” said Rios. “Our most flexible clients who trust us have seen their impact – whether it’s water filter sales or saving babies lives – at least double or triple. When clients get results like this, news spread fast.”