Do you think they knew it was Christmas?

When heavily armed elite, anti-insurgency troops boarded two Blackhawk helicopters at a secure Colombian military base in December 2010, the last thing on their minds was the accurate measurement of marketing effectiveness. Alongside their automatic weapons, they carried bags containing thousands of LED Christmas lights, along with battery packs and military grade movement sensors. Their mission was to seek out and wire a series of 75-foot tall trees, deep in the Colombian jungle, home to around 6,000 FARC guerrillas.

A leftist guerrilla group the FARC were no little-league insurgents, they specialised in cocaine smuggling and kidnapping. They also kept their own troops in line with death threats. Try leaving the group and you’d soon learn the meaning of a Colombian necktie. The idea from Lowe/SSP3 in Bogota was as simple as it was brilliant. The lights were installed close to known guerrilla trails. Passing FARC rebels would trigger the motion sensors and the lights would illuminate the trees with an emotional message: “Guerrillas: follow the light to your family and freedom; if Christmas can come to the jungle, you can demobilise and come home.” The campaign launch was covered on CNN and won creative awards all over the world, generating huge amounts of additional publicity. Based on the simple insight that in this deeply catholic nation, even the most hardened Marxist-Leninist guerrilla gets lonely and homesick in the jungle at Christmas, the Colombian government’s ambitious campaign paid off.

Over the years that followed, new and ever more emotional Christmas campaigns from Lowe urged the FARC to lay down their weapons and return to society. Thousands of rebels demobilised, but almost more importantly, after over fifty years of civil war that had killed an estimated 250,000 people, the Christmas campaigns created a more human face for the conflict helping to pave the way for peace talks. Fast-forward six years, and after complex and lengthy negotiations, the Colombian Santos government and FARC rebels have finally brokered a deal. Colombia’s President, Juan Manuel Santos, has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo for his efforts in resolving the long running civil war. The constitutional courts in Bogota are now passing the necessary legislation for a complete end to the conflict.

So how do you measure its success? A few years back, I was sitting on a New York Festivals AME Awards jury faced with just that question. Look at the Middle East and you might find part of the answer. Over the years, the US Pentagon has run many shadowy propaganda campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq that have cost the US taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars. The effectiveness of these programmes was mostly gauged based on measuring attitudes, often by the same contractors who produced the propaganda. One such effort involved a concert in Kabul where Afghan performers sang patriotic songs to welcome home local security forces and boost everyone’s morale. Now try measuring the effectiveness of that.

Operation Christmas worked because it aimed to change behaviour and not just influence attitude. The Colombian military campaign could actually count the number of insurgents who laid down their weapons during each holiday season. Following the first Operation Christmas, 331 FARC guerrillas tossed their AK47s into the dirt and returned home, five per cent of the entire FARC forces. Almost certainly, some rebels would have given up anyway for reasons unrelated to the campaign. But collected statements from former guerrillas indicated that Operation Christmas had a dramatic effect. Justifiably, it won the highest honours at the AME Awards in New York the following year.

I think there are three good lessons to be learned that apply to our daily work. First, set clear and measurable goals and measure your success against them in relation to the money you spend. Second, the difference between good and bad ads is usually a question of perspective; take the time to get in your targets’ shoes and find genuine insights on what would motivate them to change their behaviour, their choice of brand, or whatever it is you want to influence. Third, be brave and go for creative and media solutions that are not me-too, so they actually do get noticed.

According to the Global Peace Index, Colombia ranks as the seventeenth most dangerous country in the world. That is about to change dramatically with a huge social and economic upside for Colombia, worth billions of dollars in additional foreign direct investment. Not bad for the outcome of a process that was started in part by nine strings of Christmas lights.