Impact Journalism Day 2016

How a Down-and-out Ad Man Created a New Model for Social Awareness in Buenos Aires

A visit to a hardscrabble Buenos Aires neighborhood proved an unlikely source of inspiration for a bankrupt adman. Now La Cava is at the heart of everything he does.

Vidal Meyrelles at Villa La Cava.
IJD

The Prójimo advertising agency was established three years ago in La Cava, a large shantytown north of Buenos Aires. Yet it never would have happened if things had worked out the way Gonzalo Vidal Meyrelles had imagined. He left the ad agency VegaOlmosPonce – where he’d worked with big brands and won awards like the Cannes Grand Prix – to work independently. But in 2010, 12 months on, his business collapsed, his house was robbed, twice, and he was defrauded on some investments. Bad luck cleaned out his savings.

“At that point, I thought I had lost it all,” recalls Vidal Meyrelles, “Yet what I really had was my perspective. I came to [La Cava] seeking opportunity, and Prójimo emerged. A project that is an advertising agency and marketing school, where the value doesn’t come from publicists but from the people in the neighborhood.”

The Prójimo school has already created various brands, such as the sweet bread 700 Grams of Emotion and the sports clothing line 1/15. It has also promoted projects such as a “Stand Up Villero” show and produced the first video by rapper Patón Argüello, which was shown on MTV last year.

In addition, it developed the smartphone app “Con el corazón en la mano” (Heart in Hand), which seeks to connect people who are willing to help with people in need.

Brand awareness

But before he launched Prójimo, Vidal Meyrelles had gone to La Cava for another reason: To visit the soup kitchen his mother was running there. It was through the kitchen that he started connecting with families in the hardscrabble neighborhood. Then one day he had the idea of opening an ad agency there to produce high-impact social campaigns involving the residents.

With talks and videos, word of mouth spread about this agency opening its doors to people, and that good things would grow out of this interaction. And it just so happened that it wasn’t only people that came; brands did, too.

“What we provide to brands is the opportunity to have a connection to the neighborhood, to increase understanding,” says Vidal Meyrelles. “We created projects to increase empathy between brands and people. However, it is important to understand that this is not for the purpose of selling more; the objective is to create products that are closer to the people, more affordable, or that generate improvements in the neighborhood.”

Vidal Meyrelles goes into La Cava looking for Patón, the rapper. The first people who approach the adman are the kids. They hang from his legs and call him Tarzan. He checks in one house and then another. But Patón isn’t there, nor is he in the alleyways or the service station.

Vidal Meyrelles says it has always been like this in the neighborhood. From the beginning, doors were open to him. The residents listened to him, even though he was unknown, even though he lived outside of La Cava.

Call the police

He describes a different scenario: What would happen if someone from the shantytown went to another neighborhood to ring on doorbells, to tell them about a project, playing around with the kids? “For sure they would call the police,” says Vidal Meyrelles.

Prójimo started in La Cava, but has now moved to neighboring San Isidro. Patón is found in the office there, working at one of the agency’s computers.

He shows us his music video on YouTube. You can see him walking the alleyways of the place where he was born. Looking forward, he raps to the camera, in Spanish: “There’s a neighbor with a dream, there’s a neighbor who’s not heard. My goal is to find them. Helping them today is my fight.”

This is his first single, “Una Misión” (“A Mission”), a project that took shape in Prójimo. In truth, though, it was born before that – when Patón was released from jail after serving 18 years and he was presented with several alternatives: go out and steal, sell drugs, or approach the agency to get something started with his lyrics.

Vidal Meyrelles had an idea at the time: “We’ll do a song. Write a song, do it, play around with this idea.” He had been interested in Patón’s story since working for a brand that promoted cell phone usage in La Cave and he’d talked to Patón’s wife. She said she used her cell phone to talk to her husband, who was still in jail at the time. But Patón was also at Universidad Nacional de San Martin, as part of an outreach program. It was there, in Penal Unit 48, that he got into music and spent time rapping.

Tomás Lesobo also heard about the story of Patón. He is 19, but from the age of 9 has played in various cumbia bands (dance music popular throughout Latin America and hailing from Colombia). Because of Prójimo, Lesobo and Patón are now putting a band together.

Vidal Meyrelles speaks very highly of them both.

This article first appeared in Argentine daily La Nación.