Nikita Mishra
Jul 20, 2023

From despair to digital hope, The Monkeys talk Tuvalu's Titanium triumph

CANNES LIONS 2023: "Minister Kofe compared the fate of Tuvalu to a terminal cancer diagnosis, and with limited time, you are forced to think about what's important," says the chief creative officer of The Monkeys on the award-winning Tuvalu campaign that saves its sovereignty one pixel at a time.

The Monkeys creative team (with CCO Tara Ford in the middle) taking home the Titanium Lion Grand Prix at Cannes Lions 2023
The Monkeys creative team (with CCO Tara Ford in the middle) taking home the Titanium Lion Grand Prix at Cannes Lions 2023

Somewhere between Hawaii and Australia, roughly 4,000-km northeast of Sydney to be accurate, sits an atoll island inhabited by 12,000 residents that has the cruel distinction of being one of the first countries in the world to be completely lost to climate change in the coming century.

This tiny nation (the fourth smallest country) conjured up a desperate plan to upload itself on the metaverse, and create a digital twin to flee the rapidly rising sea levels. The campaign by Sydney-based creative agency The Monkeys, part of Accenture Song, won the prestigious Cannes Lions Titanium Grand Prix this year.

Titanium is a special category at Cannes Lions; there are no Golds, Silvers or Bronze metals here, just the Titanium Lion and Grand Prix. The award launched in 2003 was late Dan Weiden’s idea, the co-founder of W+K. It's the most sought-after creative honour that transcends categories, and in Dan Weiden’s words: The work that’s awarded here “causes the industry to stop in its tracks and reconsider the way forward.”

The last time Australia or New Zealand won the Titanium Grand Prix was back in 2018 for another Pacific Island nation imperiled by climate change. Host/Havas’ Palau Pledge asked tourists arriving to sign a promise on their passport to protect the environment during their stay.

Host Havas team in 2018 Cannes Lions Festival

Naturally, for The Monkeys winning a Grand Prix in this category for The First Digital Nation was a “total mic drop moment.”

Chief creative officer Tara Ford sat down for an in-depth conversation with Campaign and described the award night as “surreal.”

Tara Ford, CCO, The Monkeys

“It’s not the kind of news you receive every day. We were thrilled on so many levels. The team on this project is very passionate about this project. No country has ever had to ask the question, “What happens to a country without land?” with such urgency as Tuvalu. No country faces the same existential threat,” she says.

The archipelago’s predicament has long been a cause célèbre of global heating. Nearly 40% of Tuvalu’s capital is underwater at high tide; estimates forecast the entire country to vanish by the end of the century. But its diaspora still wants a place they’d call home, hence the dramatic solution of enshrining Tuvalu’s culture and values in the cloud.

The tragedy is both dramatic and sobering, and the solution needed to reflect the same desperation and triumph. The Monkeys helped co-create the beginnings of a Digital Nation, starting with a digital twin of the Teafualiku Islet, one of the first islands Tuvalu will lose, and a dedicated website where visitors can show support for the country’s future.

Jane Lin-Baden, Publicis’ APAC CEO who presided on the 2023 Dan Weiden Titanium jury, spoke to Campaign earlier and remarked on the Grand Prix winning work to say it represented “a new direction and breakthrough” and “it is sophisticated on a different level [that] addressed the business challenge with a solid technology element.”

Behind the bold provocation and the unpredictable idea of the campaign, the brief shared with The Monkeys was stark. CCO Tara Ford deconstructs the creative strategy process for us.

“The issue of protecting Tuvalu’s sovereignty is a real, big problem that is not going away. It was humbling to hear the plight of the country and its people in the next five, 10 and 50 years. The idea was to propel Tuvalu and its plight further into the spotlight. As Minister Simon Kofe, Minister of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs of Tuvalu, said, ‘Save Tuvalu. Save the world.’

“We wanted to capture global attention when Minister Kofe delivers his COP27 address and also find a way to preserve the nation should the unthinkable happen. It was a dual brief on climate mitigation and adaptation. We had to come up with a radical concept that served the purpose of both the digital transformation as well as a wake-up call to the world while there is still time to act,” adds Ford.

A snapshot from the "vanishing island of Tuvalu." Photo: Shutterstock

With that in mind, Tuvalu’s announcement was designed for maximum emotional impact. 

"Since COP26, the world has not acted and so we, in the Pacific, have had to act. We've had to take our own precautionary steps with a Future Now project. As our land disappears, we have no choice but to become the world's first digital nation," he said, addressing COP27 from the digital twin of the real Te Afualiku islet.

The campaign reached 2.1 billion people, press coverage spanned 359 global publications including, The New York Times, The Guardian, it trended on Twitter and TikTok. The media budget was zero dollars. The dedicated website for Tuvalu’s digital efforts drew traffic from 160 countries but most importantly, the reach turned to action.

For the first time in over three decades of diplomatic fraught and negotiations, a climate impasse was broken—“a historic pact” (even if not originated from this issue) in the shape of a Loss and Damage Fund to financially help rebuild vulnerable nations stricken by climate-related disasters was formally gavelled. The showmanship from Tuvaluan Minister Simon Kofe’s dramatic speech from the metaverse was one of the factors in nailing the rich nations to pay for their climate policies; the fund was 30 years in the making. It moves the needle an inch at a time, not the jump of several dozen feet that Tuvalu and other low-lying countries desired.

At the global stage, a financing fund for poor nations takes time to establish and even longer time to fill. The current fund comes with a catch, it lets China, the world’s biggest emitter off the hook, and global emissions cannot fall unless the biggest petrostates shoulder responsibility.

“It’s no use having funding that comes three weeks later, if you’re hit by a hurricane,” Tuvalu’s finance minister Seve Paeniu told the press at COP27.

Tuvalu demonstrators at COP27 calling upon first world countries to act on climate policy. Photo: AP/Peter Dejong

Duncan Meisel, the co-founder and executive director of Clean Creatives that pressurises ad and PR companies to drop fossil fuel clients from their roster echoes this sentiment: “For nations like Tuvalu, ending fossil fuel expansion is a matter of life and death, and if the ad industry wants to honour their leadership, they should stop working with the fossil fuel companies that are pushing Tuvaluans out of their homes.”

Clean Creatives gave The Monkeys an “F-List Public Disservice award” for the 2021 ‘Positive Energy’ campaign that attempted to promote the Australian government’s emission reduction strategies but instead, according to Comms Declare founder Belinda Noble, ended up “in greenwashing and misinformation” and “making monkeys out of all Australians.”

Current politics aside, creatively, The Monkey’s Tuvalu campaign fired on all cylinders of effectiveness and nailed the client brief.

Ford recounts, “When Minister Kofe saw our work for the first time, he said, 'I was filled with a deep sadness about the impending loss of my homeland. At the same time, I felt a renewed sense of hope that the powerful message in my speech could inspire real climate action.' Tuvalu’s position is incredibly sad, just the other day Minister Kofe framed his perspective and said it’s akin to a terminal cancer diagnosis. And when there’s limited time, it forces you to think about what’s really important.”

A look at past winners in the Titanium category, The Nike+ ‘Fuel band,’ Metro Trains ‘Dumb Ways to Die,’ The Palau Pledge or Burger King’s ‘The Whopper Detour,’ show the same pattern of perfect, inspiring and impactful craft that commands a domino effect on not just in the market where it’s from, but also the world.

So, what sets apart a Titanium Lion win from the others?

The Monkeys say the award is special because the category is a precursor to where the industry is going, not where it has been. Unlike many other categories, in the Titanium category agencies and advertisers can only enter a campaign once, those shortlisted must physically present their case to the jury in Cannes, a requirement borrowed from the Innovation Lion category. Clearly, a dazzling case study that brings the campaign to life, a prerequisite of sorts for awards, is not enough here; the jury can smell false claims from a mile away.

"No amount of polishing in a case study will fool a jury. You have to start with an amazing idea. Then communicate the idea simply and let the jury know why it is relevant, important, new, entertaining, right, successful... What is the evidence of this? And bear in mind that people watching the case study will be tired, time-poor and often not from your country. So be clear without making assumptions," advises Ford. 

She continues: “When we went into the campaign, we were thinking of an out-of-the-box solution, not an award win. There is no real recipe for a Titanium Grand Prix. This type of work should be done as a co-creation with the communities it serves, involving experts in the field. It’s great to see our industry applying its creative firepower towards issues, problems and systems in the world that need to be change.,”

Purpose and application of tech are good, as various jury members have said in their Cannes interviews to Campaign, but purpose or tech cannot replace the value of a faultless, flawless clear, creative idea. The idea that goes through the needle of an eye and stays relevant for many years to come; fulfills brand purpose, that’s the first job of advertising and can amaze the exceptional jury.

Here, First Digital Nation was technically hinged on metaverse but the jury including David Droga and Lin-Baden played this aspect down.

“This work isn’t just a tech idea. It’s far more than storytelling. It’s about changing perception, changing precedence, and reshaping international law. By creating digital borders, the team is helping the people of Tuvalu protect their rights, enable climate adaptation and mitigation.”

Adds Lin-Baden: “It addressed the business challenge—how to protect an economy through the ownership of a national digital territory—with a solid technology element used in a smart way. The work is not about the metaverse, but how to use digital assets to claim sovereignty.”

As far as trends go, it’s interesting to see that despite the recent hype, metaverse (or mehtaverse?) get the royal snub at Cannes this year and replaced by its shinier, glossier new age tech counterpart generative AI.

Everyone from the top to the bottom of the totem pole was obsessed about gen AI and innovation played heavily into creativity at the Festival, but ultimately, creativity that makes a human connect won over the machine overlords. Adam & Eve’s CCO Richard Brim's talk titled ‘Give Them a Punch in the Feels’ aptly sums its up: “AI can go f*** itself: it can’t feel like we can.”

For now. Humans > machines.     

Campaign Asia

Related Articles

Just Published

7 hours ago

48% Indians want more inclusive representation from ...

Depiction of women in Indian ads continues to be skewed stereotypically while diversity and inclusion of LGBTQI+ groups nearly absent, according to a Kantar report

7 hours ago

Step beyond tokenism when advertising for people ...

A panel at the Advertising Standards Council of India's D&I Edge summit shared how brands should focus on authenticity and explore the role of advertising in driving social change.

8 hours ago

Why engaging with Taylor Swift’s devoted fanbase ...

Swifties are still talking about Spotify’s artwork announcing Taylor Swift as its 2023 global top artist, highlighting the importance of authentically speaking to fandoms.

8 hours ago

Adidas creates clothing for Roblox avatars

Brand launches shops in virtual world and partners with creator Rush Bogin.