David Ohana studied an advertising course at Charles Sturt University. He has since dedicated most of his career to using his skills for social good. David has worked on campaigns for some of the biggest brands, and not-for-profits in the world – from Google and Amazon, to the UN and UNICEF. And he’s even worked on a video campaign with Beyoncé to raise awareness of World Humanitarian Day.
Director of Communication and Marketing for the Minderoo Foundation, David reflects on the moment during his advertising course that set him on his career trajectory.
The starting point
“I think it’s fair to say that a lot of what I’m doing today can actually be traced back to Charles Sturt University and the creation of the in-house advertising agency, Kajulu. It was my final year and our lecturers told us about this International Advertising Association Inter Ad contest. It was essentially an opportunity to take on universities around the world. So, we needed to brand ourselves, and any self-respecting agency needs a name. So, we came up with Kajulu. I lovingly created a logo in Microsoft Word. We were fiercely competitive, wanting to take on some of those big city universities and the reigning champions in Asia and the US. We took it very seriously.
“I remember spending most of our April holidays holed up in an office. We set up a war room and we worked on a campaign for Compact Computers. I’m not sure Compact still exists, so clearly a very successful campaign!
“After weeks and weeks of work, and to our disbelief, we won. A few kids in regional NSW had beaten universities around the world.
I remember we went out for milkshakes to celebrate the victory. Yep, they were the hedonistic and wild days of advertising!
“And I know Kajulu continues today, which is absolutely brilliant. I hear it’s got its own building and a small group of students gather every year, so I like to think that we kind of inadvertently started a way less cool, entirely less secretive, ad-land version of Dead Poets Society. And in all seriousness, it was definitely a confidence boost, and I guess it was like, well, that happened, so what could we do next?”
From advertising course to advertising career
“The answer came just a few weeks later. It was our final year. We had to pick a client and do a campaign for them. Lots of folks went and signed up the local businesses and for whatever reason I remember narrowing it down to either Nike or the United Nations. Both sounded like big global brands, so I called up UN headquarters late one evening and managed to talk my way through to someone in the Communications Department.
“Hi, it’s David. I’d like to offer my services pro bono to the United Nations. To my surprise, the woman on the phone said, ‘Well, you’re a bit late, aren’t you?’
“She went on to explain that they had just put out a tender for advertising agencies to run a World AIDS Day campaign. So, they put us in touch with the Sydney office. We got some friends together, and basically what we studied during the day, we put into practice at night.
“Then the big day came.
“We marched into the UN office in Sydney with a VHS cassette, wearing borrowed suits. They were a bit confused at first because we were not an advertising agency, but university students. We hadn’t done the proposal, but we had finished the campaign. To cut a long story short, we won the pitch, knocking out a bunch of actual agencies. Soon our campaign was running around the world on CNN, BBC, in stadiums and in cinemas.
“So, a campaign produced by a few students from regional NSW had gone global.
“Then right after that something even more unexpected happened. A job had come up in East Timor in the UN communications team, in a country that had just been reduced to ashes following the elections. Someone at the UN said: ‘Well, what about that guy in Australia who did the World AIDS Day campaign? Let’s send him.’
The potential power of advertising
“It was the most incredible experience, working on a project to move a family out of an area where there was militia and dengue fever. The UN had literally gone in and was running the country. My eyes were opened and my mind was blown.
“It was while I was in East Timor that a received a job offer at Saatchi and Saatchi – the agency I’d always wanted to work for. But I remember when I got that call – in a UN jeep rumbling through a town where smoke was still billowing from the charred shells of homes and I could already feel my priorities and my purpose starting to shift.
“I finished up my contract with the UN on a Tuesday and that Wednesday I started at Saatchi. I remember sitting in this really plush boardroom discussing whether a Toyota logo should come in a few frames earlier or later in a TV commercial. Now, while I have nothing against Toyota or Saatchi, or advertising in general, in fact, quite the opposite – I remember the 20-year-old me thinking if we had had only five per cent of the creative power and resources of the partnerships that are in this room right now, if we could have applied that to the work I was doing yesterday in Timor, it could have potentially solved a ton of challenges and even saved some lives. And it was that experience – which really all started with my advertising course at Charles Sturt – which solidified all the work I’ve been doing ever since.”
The future of advertising
“We’re in a world where brands and the creative community have as much potential to change the world as governments and not-for-profits. In many cases, more. That puts students in the driving seat. Social responsibility doesn’t just get you through the pearly gates quicker. It’s proven to be good for business. There’s the stat that those among the biggest 500 companies in the US which are investing in social impact, they’re outperforming those that don’t by 26 per cent. Some of the coolest and most profitable brands out there are also brands doing good.
“I sometimes think about that very first call I made to the UN from Bathurst. Without that, I’m pretty certain I would never have been involved in any of the projects in my career to date. So, my advice is never leave an idea you have unrealised, especially one that could help others.”
Hear more about David’s change-making career – and other Charles Sturt alumni making a difference – in our podcast series.