Brian Tjugum: An advocate for Africa

One's European campaigns director wants to highlight the progress made in Africa as well as the work still to be done. Matt Cartmell reports.

Brian Tjugum: still a lot to do to convey Africa's story
Brian Tjugum: still a lot to do to convey Africa's story

Just two weeks into his new job, Brian Tjugum is already on a mission. At the start of our interview he offers one of his new employers' familiar white wrist bands adn insists we register on the charity's website. 'It's a little corny, I know,' he smiles sheepishly at his forceful intro.

With a long background of working in aid to Africa, Tjugum, 44, has now joined One, the NGO co-founded by U2's Bono and focused on influence and campaigning, rather than donations. In other words, comms is absolutely integral to its success, and the famine currently sweeping across the horn of Africa is giving an immediate focus to Tjugum's work.

'A lot of NGOs say their ethos is to give a voice to the voiceless. We want to give a bullhorn to the voiced,' he says.

Tjugum, originally from the US, is passionate and enthusiastic about the task in hand, but his focus remains on the positives of the campaign rather than the negatives of the situation in Africa. While he occasionally lets his conversation drop into sound bites, he always does so with a smile.

'The opportunity is to move from clicktivism to collectivism,' he says, pointing to a conference call to be held that evening between 250 One members and the European commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis response.

Realitas Consulting MD Neil McGregor Paterson, who has worked with Tjugum at both Weber Shandwick and Ogilvy PR, says he has an innate understanding of behaviour change campaigning: 'Brian is one of the cleverest people I've worked with in terms of changing people's attitudes to their own health and wellbeing. His move is a great loss to the agency world.'

Tjugum reveals that the charity's priority is to launch an agricultural development campaign, given fresher importance by the disasters in Ethiopia and Somalia: 'We can't keep on hammering the message that the Government must do more - instead, we're saying "make your fair share". In the UK we have been praising the PM and Government for the commitment they've made. Ring-fencing aid is a laudable act.'

He still recalls his first visit to Africa - specifically South Africa and Zambia - at the age of 24. 'There was an indescribable feeling of being on African earth,' he says. 'The human spirit that is embodied in everyone I met is just so amazing. Against all odds, they have such hope and ambition.'

After falling for Africa's charms, Tjugum then got bitten by the PR bug: 'I got frustrated with doing research reports and then not knowing what happened to them. I wanted to action the recommendations.'

Joining Ogilvy PR in New York, he then took a job in the agency's London office. Tjugum, whose politics are 'very liberal', explains this move resulted from an appreciation of the European sensibility and a dislike of then President George W Bush.

His next move was to Weber Shandwick, where he launched a public health practice and had some dealings with One, alongside other development clients such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Save The Children. The latter was where he met current One Europe executive director Adrian Lovett, another recent recruit.

'We manage to have daily check-ins. We're carving out our authority,' he says of his relationship with Lovett. But how is his relationship with the slightly more rock 'n' roll leader of One? 'I'm looking forward to meeting him,' he smiles wryly.

Tjugum adds that One still lives by Bono's ethos of social change. 'The brand started in popular culture,' says Tjugum. 'It's a cool brand. We need to make sure it's in that space and that it differentiates itself.'

So why his move to an NGO? 'I really wanted to find that outlet for my passion to be an advocate again,' says Tjugum.

He was brought up in Madison, Wisconsin, but now lives in Islington with his partner. A fan of historical fiction and autobiographies, his real passion is the theatre. 'When we were in New York, half of our pay checks went to Broadway,' he laughs.

Africa, though, remains his main fascination. He adds that too much publicity about Africa still centres on the stereotypical image of 'flies in children's eyes': 'It conveys the wrong image. While we do need to convey the story about need, we're also here to talk about the fact that aid is working and that progress is going to help people.'

The UN has three years left to meet its development goals in Africa. Tjugum refers to a scene in the film Gattaca, to sum up the urgency now upon One and other NGOs. Two brothers challenge each other to swim as far as they can into the sea, before one of them has to turn back. One brother always wins and he explains to the other: 'I swim like I'm never going to return.'

'That's the kind of energy we need to bring to this,' says Tjugum.


2011 Campaigns director Europe, One

2008 Head of public health, Europe, Weber Shandwick

2007 Acting director of health practice, Weber Shandwick Brussels

2005 Deputy MD, healthcare, Weber Shandwick UK

1999 Vice-president, New York, and associate director, London, Ogilvy PR Worldwide

1996 Research analyst, Communication Sciences Group

1990 Programme officer, Academy for Educational Development


What was your biggest career break?

My very first job set me on a career path I never anticipated, so was definitely a 'break'. But as breaks go, taking over Weber Shandwick's Brussels practice for a year was a real break and allowed me to apply my experiences to a combination of opportunity and challenge.

Have you had a notable mentor?

The Academy for Educational Development was a Shangri La for young, ambitious professionals. My second boss there stands out - Gary MacDonald. He saw potential in me I didn't know I had and groomed me.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

My father's oft-repeated proverb: If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing really well. I believe you have to take pride in your work and continually look for ways to do things better the next time round.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

A sparkle in the eye. That sparkle conveys intelligence, humour, creativity, ambition. And tell me why you believe failure is not an option. Can you do that while maintaining a genuine sense of humility? Hired.

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