Bringing Christmas to the FARC: The communications campaign that helped end 50 years of conflict

DurIng operation “Rios de Luz” (rivers of light), army and family members dropped clear plastic balls that were lit up and filled with messages and gifts up river from farc encampments, with the goal of letting farc members know that their families were waiting for them to celebrate christmas together.

DurIng operation “Rios de Luz” (rivers of light), army and family members dropped clear plastic balls that were lit up and filled with messages and gifts up river from farc encampments, with the goal of letting farc members know that their families were waiting for them to celebrate christmas together.

MullenLoweSSP3 is not your traditional communications agency. Launched in Bogota in 1996 under the name Sokoloff Samper Polar Mora, their goal was to become one of the most creative companies in the world — competing head to head with agencies outside of the advertising industry. That goal became a reality in 2012, when they received a Titanium Lions awards in Cannes for their “Ríos de Luz” campaign.

JUAN PABLO GARCIA, MULLENLOWESSP3’S COO, SPENT SIX YEARS WORKING ON THE FRONT LINES OF THE CHRISTMAS CAMPAIGN SERIES.

JUAN PABLO GARCIA, MULLENLOWESSP3’S COO, SPENT SIX YEARS WORKING ON THE FRONT LINES OF THE CHRISTMAS CAMPAIGN SERIES.

Juan Pablo García, MullenLowe SSP3'S COO, first joined MullenLowe in 2007 as a college intern. We recently spoke with Juan about his experience working on a series of campaigns sponsored by the Colombian Ministry of Defense with the goal of reaching the guerrillas, persuading their members to leave the armed conflict, and reunite with their families.

How did the Christmas campaign come to life?

MullenLoweSSP3 started working with the Colombian Ministry of Defense in 2006 on a humanitarian campaign to invite guerrillas to come out of the jungle. Although they saw some initial success, by 2010 the strategy was falling apart, mainly because the guerrilla leaders knew how to counterattack and boycott these outreach campaigns.

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As a result of this, MullenLoweSSP3 stepped back and looked at the data they had collected for the previous three years. They saw a peak on desertions around Christmas, a time when guerrilla members missed their families most, and therefore were more likely to escape and go back home. So MullenLoweSSP3 suggested to the Ministry of Defense to run a campaign solely focused on bringing Christmas to the FARC. This idea aligned with the Ministry’s goal of showing a Humanitarian side to the conflict, marking the beginning of a series of campaigns over the next four years that had unprecedented outcomes.

What was the definition of success for these campaigns?

For MullenLoweSSP3, success meant even bringing one guerrilla member back home, as this would be one life saved. The government, on the other hand, was interested in big numbers. They tracked all their outcomes, and had different targets for each year:

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  • For the first Christmas campaign they decorated trees in the jungle, with Christmas messages. This campaign brought 30% more guerrilla members back than what they had seen the previous Christmas season.

  • On the second year they launched “Rios de Luz.” Focusing on minors who had been recruited by the guerrillas, they placed messages in lit up clear containers that were sent floating down rivers towards guerrilla camps. That year they saw an increase of 11% on the number of minors who came back, and overall one guerrilla member came back home every 6 hours during the months of December and January.

  • By the fourth year, the team had learned a lot about guerrilla members as human beings, from interviews they had conducted with former members. For example, they learned that the guerrillas were as fanatic about soccer as other Colombians. They also learned that women do a lot of the specialized work to keep the operations running, from finances, to nursing, to cooking, so they decided to focus on them as the target of their campaign. The campaign “Antes de ser guerrillero eres mi hijo” featured actual mothers of guerrilla members holding photos of their children, asking them to come home for Christmas. They aired these photos during soccer games, knowing that this was a time when guerrilla members were very likely to be watching TV.

Over the four years that these campaigns ran, more than 18,000 guerrilla members abandoned the armed conflict. This is almost twice as many as the number of members left in the FARC by the time the peace accord was signed in 2017. 

What were the key insights that shaped your work in these campaigns?

The MullenLoweSSP3 team interviewed over 200 guerrilla members. These interviews produced two key insights: First, it showed them that guerrilla members were as Colombian as everyday people — they cheer for the same soccer teams, they bring their traditions from their home villages and regions to the camps. This insight — the honest belief that guerrilla members are their fellow Colombian brothers and sisters — became a pillar for all their outreach strategies. Second, they learned that guerrilla members felt as much victims of kidnapping as those who they had kidnapped. In other words, they felt ostracized from society, and believed that they wouldn’t be welcome by other Colombians if they left the armed conflict. This insight helped the creative team understand that they had to find something deeper, which in this case was a feeling of belonging, of being part of something larger than themselves. This second insight made MullenLoweSSP3 change their approach, and they created a series of videos where regular people — not just their family members — would tell the guerrillas that the entire country was ready to welcome them home.

What can corporate leaders learn from this approach to conflict resolution?

Since the agency was founded 22 years ago, their operating principles seemed very idealistic. One of them is about supporting challengers in society who are trying to fight the status quo. They also believe that they should put their creativity to good use for worthy causes, like doing pro bono work for indigenous groups. And having the opportunity to work in this type of projects has helped push their boundaries of how they approach every communications challenge. In fact, they believe that this has been their best ideas lab, and that they have learned more from this than they have working with some of the world’s largest brands.

Also, the people who have the role of clients are very non-traditional. Regular clients come to them with a list of to-do’s, but people in government needed help shaping the strategy, so their knowledge and expertise are more highly valued.

Finally, everything they did during these campaigns was connected to the humanity of their target audience. These are principles that can be exported and reused in other contexts. For example, the mothers campaign was very easy to “export” because the relevance of a mother is universal. And the message to invite a son home for Christmas is equally universal.

What’s next in this line of work?

MullenLoweSSP3 is not currently working with the new Colombian Ministry of Defense. But beyond government, their work is more widely about building peace. For example, they have worked in a project called 'Instinto de Vida’ with a group of 22 NGO’s that want to decrease violent deaths in Latin America by 50%. Juan Manuel Santos, the former President of Colombia, also launched a foundation for peace called “Compás” – to help Colombia and other countries create cultures of peace. And they are working with “La Modelo,” the largest prison in Colombia, to set up an innovation agency inside the jail.

The Operation Christmas story touches on our three key topics for trans:form:ed Bogota 2019 of Identity, Conflict and Sustainability, and how insight gained in the least expected places can unleash innovation and positive change in ways that simply replicating best practices can’t. Participants joining us in Bogota will have the opportunity to attend a VIP event at MullenLoweSSP3 offices, where they will learn more about their work to bring guerrillas home for Christmas and how this experience has shaped their work in other areas.

Watch this video produced by MullenLoweSSP3 to learn more about this amazing story: