Conn Bertish (Cancer Dojo): “Each brand needs to have a purpose, relevant to their product, but larger than their product”

Conn Bertish is a cancer survivor, founder and CEO of Cancer Dojo, a mobile app that gamifies the world’s most feared disease. Before beginning work on Cancer Dojo, Conn was the Creative Director at some of South Africa’s most respected creative agencies. Conn consults as a Creative and Purpose Strategist for brands, organizations and individuals facing seemingly insurmountable challenges. He is also an international keynote speaker on the intersection of creativity, technology and resilience. Present in Romania at the event “ADC Focus on Impact”, I had the pleasure of meeting him and talk about his shift in life and the way that impacted everything for him and the people around him. It was a true inspiration that I am glad to share with you today.

an interview by Romanita Oprea

conn bertish - the institute

What would you say that have been the most defining moments of your career and why?

My first big achievement was becoming the Chief Creative Director of Saatchi & Saatchi in South Africa. And then I moved to JWT – and that was a big move for me and the task was to turn the JWT office into the most creative agency in Cape Town, something I had previously done for Saatchi & Saatchi.  I started working too hard and then I found out that I had brain cancer.  During my different treatments and surgeries I came back to the office and started working with my studio in a different way. I was lucky to have an amazing partner – the MD & CEO and we worked together and he allowed me to use my creative team to inspire them with creativity that was kind of like nothing they’ve done before. People were able to start creating work that was very experimental and we ended up winning a lot of big awards in Cannes, D&AD, etc, and a lot of that work was for work that shifted in my mind and I started to create work that had a benefit for the society rather than purely for the return-on-investment for clients’ products.

For the briefs that we were working on, and there were some big ones, I started to give them a turn more towards a responsible way of advertising. If your product is going to solve in a problem in somebody’s life, how do you take a role in bigger issues, in bigger challenges? I guess this is what is called PURPOSE marketing or IMPACTNESS marketing. And I think the one big thing that defines that period of time was the campaign I created called “My first book campaign” – this was in 2010. In all the advertising agencies that I’ve been in until that moment we all had that pile of stock images from stock libraries and there were books with all those pictures and they clutter every agency in the world.  And this is how I realized that there was this opportunity to get all these beautiful photographs and books that people are throwing because it’s all gone digital and do something with them. I wrote to many advertising agencies and told them to start using those books, write words on them and turn into first-learner books for people who don’t have books in undeveloped countries.

We did this project with the Global Literacy Foundation and we had 2500 first time writers and then those books were collected by the JWT offices around the world and the teachers could use those beautiful books as well. I realized that this is the power of creativity: it can solve many different issues, while at the same time I was using creativity to give myself a purpose or a way to deal with my cancer. This was a big shift for me: I realized that this is actually why I’m around, I am still alive. Moreover, I realized that a lot of other people facing cancer where in this helpless state and when humans are in that state, their immune system is compromised. Because this is what cancer does: makes you hopeless. I realized there were three reasons why this happens: 1. Western medicine, over many centuries, had never given the patient a role. You take the pill and you hope that it works, but that only brings the negative effects: the depression, the chance of re-infestation, etc. But, using creativity, I could shift the behavior of a patient. Because for 20 years I’ve been a creative director and I’ve shifted the behavior of many target audiences.

And then I helped someone that I’ve met through a Red Bull event. He was a famous dancer and he had a really bad mouth cancer – he had a tumor growing out of his mouth – and he was in this completely helpless state and a lot of South Africans carry this stigma with them. It’s a lot of misconception about cancer. And stigma makes people distance themselves from people with cancer. He was really at the bottom, in a Government hospital, and he said he was dead. Some friends of mine asked if I have a way to help him. And I realized I actually had a way to help him and I gave him a creative strategy, similar to what I was using, but linked to who he was as a dancer. And it had a profound effect on him and changed his whole mental state and his disease.

Therefore, I asked myself what was I doing selling alcohol, toothpaste and petrol? Nobody looked at the patients and how you build their resilience post their treatments. A lot of attention around the world is focused around the treatments, but you don’t live and die during the treatments. You live and die post the treatments. Therefore, I decided that I want to empower cancer patients during that key phase, to have the best chance for recovery.

I’ve competed as a Red Bull surfer for many years, my brother and I surf big waves, and we’ve been trained on how to deal with very scary challenges. And it’s very much about not running from them or ignoring them, but about becoming part of the challenge.

And part of the challenge for me was to resign from my job as the Chief Creative Officer of the biggest digital agency in South Africa, at that time, in order to use the learnings that I’ve got in both the creative & advertising world and as a cancer survivor (that was in 2013) and as an extreme athlete and all of those skills to change the way patients deal with disease.

And so, in 2015, I resigned from my job to launch Cancer Dojo to which I’ve been working on and researching for eight years now to find a way to shift a patient’s mindset from helpless to actively engaged in their own healing, building resiliency and positively affect the immune system in time, through behavior change (changes in your diet, in the way you think, etc) and therefore giving patients a better chance for a better outcome.

Have you always been that optimistic as I perceive you right now?

Yes, I’ve always been, because I was brought up by an incredible father who challenged us and we got into very extreme things, always to push ourselves. “You don’t fight the Ocean, you use its power to get you where you want to go”. And the same applies for any challenge. I’ve used that ideology and thinking throughout my whole life. I use humor and playfulness to help people get into this state, to allow them to almost play with the challenge. This is what I also do with the creative people in my studio, this is how I help them get over the fear of a blank page or a deadline – by getting them in a playful state where you can throw out any idea, because there isn’t any idea that is bad. Because my bad idea can change your mediocre idea. And so on. We are all in a safe place.

My talent is that I use humor and play to get people to overcome their fears, whether is a social fear or a psychological fear or the fear of death. And get people to start becoming part of the solution, using the power of the challenge to make them go where they want to go.

What would you say that have been the most challenging cases for you with clients and people in general?

One case is one old lady. I tried to be very careful, because usually when I am addressing to the older generation who are used not to ask the doctors questions and they do just what they are told to by the doctors, many think that I am crazy and talking rubbish. I had this group of cancer patients to whom I was showing how they can start moving and imagining things while they move their arms and using metaphors while they were moving and thinking about they were getting rid of their cancer. This old lady was part of the group and I could see her looking at me in disbelieve. I was coming to the end of my work in the workshop and I got asked some questions and she was still looking at me still not believing. I found out a bit later that she was fighting cancer for seven years and had been through everything and put up her hand and asked me “Are we allowed to do this?” This turned out to be a massive shift for me.

In the advertising world I had a client that signed over a job, it was for an online retailer who had hit a million customer and they wanted to celebrate that millstone. Instead of celebrating the million customer with a prize, the ad that we did was that he came in the million place – what took him so long? Such an idiot J) Instead of receiving a prize, he was receiving a slap in the face with a giant hand (the actor playing in the TVC, not the real customer, of course). We were shooting the commercial and the slaps began. The client, who was the CEO, present at the shooting, told us to stop, that we couldn’t hit the customer. I told him that was the script and it wasn’t a real think, but the client wouldn’t have it and insisting on us stopping the slapping and change it with a poke. We went away and we had a discussing for ten minutes and in the meantime we have shut about 14 slaps and I agreed with the poking. We went back and they started the poking and then we sent different edits to the client: one was the poke (which was lame) and the other one was the slap. He saw them and he loved the slap and it turned out to be one of South Africa’s most loved commercials at that time.

The job of a creative director is to make sure the best work gets out and this is a good example of how to get a client to buy into something.

So this is the manner in which you were transforming the agencies you were working at, in making them more and more creative, right?

 Everybody was infused with the freedom to express themselves and I kind of inspired everybody to be part of this free expression. At that time it was very innovative in the terms of the work that we were doing. Social and digital media and technology are changing our lives to such a degree that when it comes to advertising and marketing the honest thing to do going forward is to be true and real. It’s real people expressing themselves in ways that are unique and relevant to whatever brand they are handling then. That is the work that is going to stand out.

As a creative you don’t realize sometimes how much creativity you have inside of you, not what the industry is telling you it should be the right approach or the bubble of advertising that you are in. You are bigger than the bubble and you are lending some of your creativity to the advertising world. You are the person who can come up with the greatest insights, it’s not about copping the formula that won in Cannes last year. The work that is going to become famous is the work you create, because you have your own opinions and insights into the world that then turns into work that no one else can create, because it’s yours.

Do you believe that anybody can be creative?

Yes. One of the things that I do is teach people to believe that they are not creative. And I teach them at a time when they are most scared. I teach cancer patients how to be creative. The more you do something in the brain shifts and changes. You can be a left brain person and through what you do to become a right brain thinker. What you are thinking and what you do can affect the biology of your body as well as the neurology of your brain. Through using 60 levels of behavior change methodology.

On which time do you intervene in the whole process of a patient?

It’s basically the next version of the Cancer Dojo app. We are looking for investors to take our NVP to the next level where we can start giving data and information to your oncologist about where you are in your journey – the harder to kill level. And the more levels you pass it gives you more chances of getting rid of the cancer. When you go to the doctor he will be able to see your progress and level on the app, the information being not only physical, but also psychological information about the patient. Which is huge.

You motto “harder to kill” you also said it works on brands. How does that happen?

I did some talks for WPP streaming events in Greece and we know that brands need to be like humans in order to communicate with humans. When humans are in this hopeless-chaotic state the thing that they need more than anything else is purpose. Just like patients need. It’s an anchor to what you have unique and who you are. I think you can give patients a creative strategy around their specific need which gives them control. And the same thing applies with brands. When brands are in a hopeless state (and a lot of them are) and a lot of agencies are in this hopeless state as well because the world is shifting to such a degree, the traditional models are breaking up, they can’t be doing the same thing they have been doing forever, at the same rate in the past. They have to evolve.

Just like I say to the cancer patients in the 16th level of the app – the last level – you’ve been through this process and journey for a reason and now you have to do a lot of things as you go forward in the life and you have to kind of earn your place on the planet. Because we have a loaded planet that is facing many challenges. And brands need to earn their place on the planet. Especially if you look at sustainability. You need to change how you evolve branding and marketing. Each brand needs to have a purpose, relevant to their product, but larger than their product.