Wunderman Thompson: billboards to shelters

Innovation in the face of a Moroccan crisis

On Friday 8 September 2023 a devastating earthquake hit the Marrakech Al Haouz region in Morocco, resulting in the loss of over 2,850 lives, over 2,500 injuries, and leaving hundreds of others homeless.

Nabil Sarih

In response to the humanitarian crisis, Jood NGO and Wunderman Thompson Morocco devised the Life-Saving Outdoors initiative, repurposing advertising billboards to provide essential shelter to those impacted. Within 48 hours, a manufacturing process was put in place to turn 4x3m billboards into ergonomic, robust, waterproof, and thermal tents.

MediaCat Magazine recently spoke to Nabil Sarih, Creative Director, Wunderman Thompson Morocco, about the initial action, the ongoing process, and how brands and agencies united to help.

Can you share in more detail the initial and ongoing process of repurposing the billboards?

The process began with the dismantling of advertising billboards. These were then converted into solid, water-resistant, and well-insulated tents thanks to their high-quality thermal material. The challenge was to transform a flat 4x3m format into an ergonomic tent without wasting material while optimising production and simplifying the design to speed up the process. Each 4x3m panel allowed us to create a shelter for four people, or a ‘4 per roof’. By using two panels, we were also able to create larger tents for large families, accommodating up to eight people. We’re still using the same process up to this day, because each one has been so needed.

The billboards used are made from high quality, thermal fabric — roughly how old were the recovered billboards, and will this experience change the manufacturing process going forward?

The age of the recovered advertising billboards varies, as some were in stock while the majority were already being displayed. However, all these panels are made from durable, high-quality thermal fabric, so even the older ones are still ideal for the job. This initiative highlighted the potential for reusing outdoor advertising billboards during disasters, which we hope can be used for future interventions in emergencies and providing shelter to other people in need, no matter where they are. 

There was swift support from numerous partners, clients, media agencies and local printers. Can you describe the community element of pulling together this initiative?

This is a powerful demonstration of the strength of solidarity within the community in Morocco. In response to a call, everyone — the union of media agencies, partners, clients, displayers, and local printers — came together and contributed. They quickly mobilised to provide support, illustrating their collective commitment to humanitarian aid. Their contributions were diverse, ranging from providing advertising billboards to supplying labour for manufacturing, not to mention dismantling the panels for reuse.

What specific challenges have Wunderman Thompson Morocco faced since the start of the initiative?

Although the initiative has been widely successful, it has also faced challenges. After successfully conceptualising and prototyping the tents, as well as proving their effectiveness, the challenge was to produce a large number of these tents to quickly help as many families as possible. We also encountered supply problems, and needed to convince other brands to supply us with their 4×3 panels in the long term.

What has been the biggest lesson from this initiative?

The major lesson from this initiative is the power of creativity and innovation when it comes to solving problems and dealing with crises. By exploring unconventional solutions and reusing available resources, we are able to provide rapid and effective aid in the event of a disaster. In addition, it is essential to react quickly, as we know that shelters can make all the difference to families going through trying times. It is also crucial to highlight that we have given a new, valuable role to advertising billboards by giving them a second life — saving human lives in adverse weather conditions.

Going forward, how can people and organisations continue to help?

Given the still high demand for shelters, individuals and organisations can continue to support the Life-Saving Outdoors initiative. They can contribute through donations or by providing advertising billboards for us to transform into shelters. Now, the need is not limited to shelters, but also extends to the creation of temporary classrooms to allow students to resume their studies.

Given the time of year, it is also essential to protect victims and their animals against snow, cold, and bad weather, which makes reconstruction even more complex. Unfortunately, most of these villages are inaccessible, making it difficult to move these people elsewhere. In addition, these communities are very attached to their land, so often do not wish to leave.

Featured Image: Wunderman Thompson Morocco repurposed billboards

Grace Gollasch, Content and Social Media Editor at MediaCat Magazine

Grace relocated from Australia to London in July 2023, joining the MediaCat Magazine team in September 2023. Before making the move, Grace spent a year and a half at Mediaweek, Australia’s largest media trade publication, where she was a journalist and social media manager.

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