Marina Zuber Recounts Her Experience at SXSW 2015

This was my first time attending South By Southwest and I must say, it was quite an experience!

The panel I led with Pamela Baker-Masson, spokesperson for the Smithsonian’s National Zoo + Conservation Biology Institute, included John Gourley and Zach Carothers from the rock band Portugal. The Man. We received such an amazing, heartfelt reaction from the audience that I can confidently say, “Mission accomplished!” Everyone was very attentive, no one left the room, and even more impressive, no one checked their phone. So refreshing!

Our panel was called “Smithsonian Sumatran Tigers <3 Portugal. The Man” and explored finding ways to engage new audiences through unlikely partnerships and creative thinking. The task was to raise awareness about the plight of Sumatran tigers, an endangered species.

Pamela opened the session by playing the band’s new track “Endangered Song” on a vintage vinyl record player, which was followed by a viewing of a the case study film, providing further context to those otherwise unfamiliar with the situation. She went on to describe the challenges encountered at the start of the project, the most prominent being that the zoo is mainly thought of as a destination, a place to enjoy animals, but is also associated with animals in captivity.

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There is little awareness of the stellar efforts in wildlife conservation being made by the Smithsonian National Zoo + Conservation Biology Institute and similar institutions. This lack of awareness is particularly pronounced among younger generations. Millennials are our best hope of building a better future for our planet by tackling the issue of endangered species.

The team at DDB New York chose to communicate its message through music, as it’s so central to the lives of most Millennials. However, music has no clear connection to the zoo, or to wildlife conservation and endangered species in general.

But what if we took their beloved music and made it endangered? That’s where disruptive ideas came into play, and that’s how we leveraged creative thinking to shed new light on the plight of endangered species. The idea of the “Endangered Song” was born by using the concept of endangerment as a metaphor for the crisis of the nearly extinct Sumatran tiger.

We were able to make a complex social issue resonate by making it emotional, personal, and actionable for Millennials. Statistics and hard facts can be helpful, but they don’t always reach people emotionally or drive them to action.

DDB, in partnership with the Smithsonian National Zoo + Conservation Biology Institute, made the issue personal by putting the fate of the song in the hands of individual influencers in the online space, sending a degradable vinyl record to 400 strategically targeted individuals and asking them to digitize the song. If the song wasn’t digitized, it would eventually no longer exist. Why 400 copies? Because that’s the estimated number of Sumatran tigers left in the wild. So the song itself became a kind of endangered species facing extinction as well.

Portugal. The Man was the ideal partner for this project. Growing up in Alaska, the band members were raised with a large awareness of environmental issues. The group’s lead singer, John Gourley, told the SXSW panel he remembered seeing a decline in the pods of Beluga whales swimming in the ocean just a few steps away from his backyard.

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But the conversation around “Endangered Song” didn’t stop when the panel was over. Pete Cashmore, founder and CEO of the news website Mashable, interviewed the Smithsonian Zoo’s Communications Manager Annalisa Meyer and myself about the Sumatran tigers at the Mashable party on Sunday night. The following night, Portugal. The Man performed, and at the end of the concert we handed out exclusive Sumatran tiger-printed artwork, designed by John, to the band’s fans, continuing the momentum that had been built around the “Endangered Song.” In turn, recipients were asked to tweet the hashtag #EndangeredSong

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Help spread the word today. Joining the conversation using the hashtag: #EndangeredSong

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Long live the “Endangered Song,” and long live the Sumatran tigers!

Marina Zuber Regional Business Director DDB New York

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