Using an Innovative Communications Strategy to Fight the Taliban
BY Max Chafkin
Wexley School for Girls, an innovative ad agency that specializes in guerrilla marketing, is helping the Army's mission in Afghanistan
In March, we profiled upstart ad agency Wexley School for Girls, which has thrived, thanks to a combination of new-media savvy and old-fashioned irreverence. Wexley has taken on some unusual projects -- a mass paper-airplane launch, for instance -- but the company's founders were still surprised when they got a call from a U.S. Army colonel who had read about them in Inc. and wanted to send his communications officer for a little on-the-job training.
Major Brian de Leon, a 15-year veteran of the Army with three tours of duty in Iraq, arrived at Wexley's Seattle offices in April and has been spending three days a week with the company's creative team. Despite feeling slightly out of place amid the company's stuffed goat and mini-golf green, he was struck by how similar the challenges of guerrilla marketing are to the challenges of fighting of an actual guerrilla war.
De Leon will deploy later this year to Afghanistan, where his mission will be to persuade the populace to side with the Afghan government rather than with the Taliban. The Army's traditional communications strategy, which generally involves leaflets and advertisements, has not been particularly effective in Afghanistan. Illiteracy rates there are above 70 percent, and Afghan society is collectivist, meaning that even people who can read Army handbills or billboards will probably ignore them unless they hear otherwise from tribal and religious leaders. "We need grass-roots-based tactics," de Leon says. "But the Army doesn't usually think that way."
That may be changing, thanks to de Leon's experiences at Wexley. As he watched the firm develop a series of events for Microsoft called Digital Taste Tests, he was struck with an idea. "I thought, How can I do that for security in Afghanistan?" He plans to organize Security Samplers, events at which Afghan military and police officers show off some of their skills -- such as marksmanship and procedures for searching a house -- to tribal elders. This kind of demonstration has been used for visiting congressional delegations, but the Army has never organized them for Afghans.
The hope is that the elders will go home convinced of their military's competence and instruct their followers to oppose the Taliban. "Instead of doing a broadcast, I'm doing a narrowcast for the key communicators," says de Leon.
Those words warm the hearts of Wexley's founders, and not just because de Leon has picked up the industry jargon. "We've truly helped affect the success of his mission," says co-founder Cal McAllister. "It gives me goose bumps to think about."