Brazilian Agency Hopes to Do Good -- And Do Business -- in Poorest Communities

NBS Wants to Teach Poor People in Rio How to Be Consumers

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Brazilian slums were in the news recently when video taken from a police helicopter in Rio de Janeiro showed bullets raining down on a drug trafficker from one of the city's notorious favelas. The episode reminded Brazilians that the slums and drug lords are still doing business in spite of broad-scale pacification efforts.

The shootout comes at a time when an ad agency in Rio wants to teach poor people in the slums how to be consumers.

The agency NBS (for "No Bullshit" -- no kidding) has set up an office in one of the worst slums in Rio after conducting more than 800 interviews with inhabitants from ages 18 to 65 regarding their expectations and hopes for the area.

What residents of the slum, Santa Marta, wanted most was safety from the drug lords, who controlled every facet of their lives. There are 32 slum areas in Rio, with a combined population of about 1 million, and in some the drug dealers act as arbiters of disputes and dispensers of justice and punishments. But in Santa Marta, they are hated and the residents there had zero tolerance for them.

Five years ago, the Rio government embarked on a program to rid the slums of the drug dealers using Pacifying Police Units (an elite police force that came straight from the academy, untainted by ties to the gangs.)

Andre Lima, a partner in NBS, wanted to "transmit our idea of the world by doing something relevant, remarkable, more sustainable." And that involved acting as the bridge between brands and companies and the people who live in the pacified communities.

Mr. Lima's concept builds on the efforts of Muhammed Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank and the man who pioneered microfinancing -- giving loans of a few dollars to startup projects in impoverished areas. Mr. Yunus has been awarded the Nobel Peace Price and the congressional Gold Medal for his work to combat global poverty. All the profits of his activities to help the poor are reinvested in the projects themselves, a model followed by Mr. Lima.

In an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Yunus said he was not advocating doing away with profit-making businesses. "I'm saying keep these separate, run them in parallel. There is a toolbox to solve the problems of poverty, unemployment, the environment. All I'm doing is adding one more tool to the box. It's simply enhancing the capability of people to express themselves in another way to address the problems we have."

The NBS project is called Rio + Rio for "the real Rio Revolution." Before pacification, Rio had been called "cidade partida" -- the divided city.

Laurel Wentz, our international editor, and I met with Mr. Lima and his colleagues Aline Pimenta and Marilena Senra at their office high on the hill of Santa Marta. The office had been converted from a rundown storage building, and the agency put in new floors and windows, running water, a kitchen and bathroom.

Andre says the concept of Rio + Rio is win-win. Projects need to promote a significant change for the communities and at the same time provide a new opportunity for brands. "The issue is not philanthropy or donations. It's business. No more looking at people in [these] communities as poor people. It's time to look at them as consumers and, particularly, as citizens who deserve attention and respect."

Andre said his agency's job is "to convince clients that social responsibility will get results, and only if they're persuaded will they make poor consumers part of the chain."

He admitted that it's been "hard to convince clients to put their money up. It's not difficult for them to understand, but it's not a budget priority."

One project that did get funded, sponsored by Brazilian cosmetic company O Boticário, involves teaching proper manners and other refinements (including job-interview techniques) to 15-year-old girls. They were asked to write an essay on why they wanted to join the program (the criteria for which included that they had to stay in school and not get pregnant). At the end of the sessions, the sponsors threw a gala coming-of-age party and dance, and the girls got to show off new dresses and their new social polish. The 15 girls who participated will be given training as door-to-door salespeople for a new line of cosmetics.

Ms. Pimenta, who is the business director of NBS's Rio + Rio project and who works in the Santa Marta office fulltime, said of the cosmetics initiative: "Before, teenagers didn't have money for a party or any hope of the future, beyond dating a drug dealer." Of course, it's only a start, and while there are hopes of another half-dozen projects, none have yet gotten underway.

Mr. Lima said progress comes slowly with the people of Santa Marta. The first contacts between his agency and the people living in there were "terrible." They thought the agency was taking advantage of them. But now, he said, "we know the people by name, and we're not strangers any more."

Rance Crain is the editor-in-chief of Advertising Age.
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