Since Russia invaded Ukraine, adland has responded in numerous ways to the global crisis. Companies have shown their solidarity by changing their colours and assorted campaigns have publicised the devastating effects of the war. But what about humanitarian efforts? As Canada-based commercial director and photographer Jason van Bruggen puts it, "Philanthropy — it's not something advertising is known for doing."
But the industry not being known for philanthropy has never stopped Jason. Alongside his wife and CEO of Dot Dot Dash, Blaine Pearson, he started the ‘Resistance from a Distance’ initiative to send planes filled with donated supplies to the Ukrainian front lines and Polish refugee camps.
Jason’s desire to help stemmed from several places. He says seeing the wartime situation made it hard to sleep at night. “My parents grew up during World War Two. I was raised on stories of the invasion of a country by an occupying force. Those stories were sort of embedded within my DNA and they were coming to life very vividly as this invasion unfolded on my TV screen and newsfeed.”
The fact that Jason calls Toronto home was another reason. As a Canadian, he lives in the world’s second-largest Ukrainian diaspora, with an estimated 1.4 million Ukrainians calling the country home.
“I think our countries have a bond,” Jason adds. “I went [to a Ukrainian rally] in solidarity with the Canadian-Ukrainians, including some friends of mine and was moved by that powerful expression of unity and togetherness.”
Following a family discussion, Jason and Blaine discovered MEEST, a Toronto-based shipping company with the ability to send stuff directly to Ukraine. Not only was MEEST recommended by Ukrainian-Canadians, but their website had a list of suggested donations for the Ukrainians in need.
The next step was putting out a call on social media. And while Jason expected some help, he did not anticipate the scale on which people were prepared to pitch in. “This overwhelming response came back,” he says. “We had armies of volunteers.”
According to Jason, on the Sunday when he and Blaine opened their studio for collection, the entire parking lot was full. “I think a couple hundred people came to drop off donations and there were probably about 50 people packing boxes and moving stuff.”
As it happened, the surprising turnout proved to be necessary. During the week and a half period during which the cause ran, the number of transnational refugees went from a documented 400,000 to over one million.
Demand wasn’t the only challenge. Jason adds that actually keeping the initiative organised was tricky. Specifically, the evolving nature of the war zone meant demand was subject to change.
“Even during the week where we accepted supplies, the list changed significantly,” Jason says. “Initially it was warm clothing and hats. And then it became things like eye patches and sutures and then things for trauma victims — prescription medications and things that average consumers don’t have sitting in their garage.”
As it turned out, the route to overcoming this was utilising experience gained in the industry. By running the ‘Resistance from a Distance’ like a studio production, Jason and Blaine turned the project into something far more accessible.
“It was very bureaucratised,” Jason says. “People had certain roles and they just stuck to their lanes. In the same way that we don’t ask VTR guys to operate a camera, we had a person who was in charge of boxes and a person who was in charge of diapers. Everyone had a very specific role.”
This methodology proved successful. According to Jason, the project received so many donations in a week and a half that their 3,000 square foot studio hit capacity. This proved a great opportunity for other organisations to get involved.
Tendril was just one of the companies which offered up their studio as a place to store the donations. While Tendril co-founder Kate Bate had previously co-founded the Together Project — an organisation designed to welcome refugee newcomers to Canada — Jason and Blaine’s work also inspired Tendril to take things one step further as they offered their studio to those in need of support.
“When the Canadian government launched the pathway to residency for Ukrainians fleeing the war, we knew we could facilitate entry if that’s what people wanted and we could also provide a workspace if needed,” Kate adds.
Freelance producer Amalie Bruun was also eager to help, as she offered up her studio as a place to store donations.
“When I heard what Jay and Blaine were plotting, I felt deeply compelled to participate or help in any way I could,” she says. “Like everyone, I was watching something terrible unfold in front of my eyes. The response they got was beyond moving, massive and full of hope and purpose. And if it made the difference for just one person, or one family, it was all worth it.”
Although the initiative may be wrapped, Jason isn’t finished. He has personally chosen to ship drones to Ukraine and he wants to see other people continuing to help in any way they can.
“My hope is that [‘Resistance from a Distance’] creates those neurological or behavioural pathways for a wider set of people who might not have devoted a lot of time to these types of efforts in the past,” he says.
Jason adds that just because people in the industry have previously shied away from philanthropic causes does not mean they don’t have valuable skills to offer. “People in production are good at producing things; a valuable skill for getting initiatives like this off the ground. If that can be matched with a greater awareness and inclination, along with the past experience of being successful, it becomes a really valuable force in this world. If people come together to work in concert in any industry, great things can be achieved. And our industry is no different.”