Jimmy Niggles : Single Origin Coffee Roasters, Surry Hills : Sydney, Australia
Growing a beard as a reminder to get your skin checked for melanoma might seem like an unconventional connection, but for the last seven years that’s the relationship Jimmy Niggles and the team behind Beard Season have been fostering. By using their spare time, fun approach to life, and somewhat inexplicable beards to start an important conversation, they’ve already had incredible impact from their clever self-funded campaign, from simply raising awareness of the importance of skin checks to ensuring critical early intervention for those diagnosed with melanoma.
The idea was inspired by the most tragic of circumstances when Jimmy’s group lost a long-time friend in 2009. At only 23, Wes was diagnosed with a melanoma on his neck and ultimately lost his battle against the aggressive form of cancer. It was a wake up to Jimmy and his friends to the seriousness of the disease and a reminder that, although their beach and travel lifestyle was meant to be enjoyed, a love for the outdoors needs to be balanced with an awareness of the potential health issues associated with sun exposure. With that in mind, Jimmy and his friends hatched a plan to make a difference in the memory of their mate; to take action and use their professional skills to help prevent a similar yet often preventable fate for others in the community.
Australian’s are well-known for their relaxed, outdoor culture; any excuse is a good excuse to be under the sun while at the beach, the races, a sporting event, or a simple backyard BBQ. So it’s no surprise that Australia has the highest rate of melanoma incidence in the world and that there have been countless Sunsmart campaigns to ensure that Aussies are informed of the damage our sun can cause. From the popular “Slip, Slop, Slap” and “Leave Your Hat On” campaigns in the 80s and 90s, to the more hard-hitting “How to remove a skin cancer” and “Dark side of tanning” ads of recent years, the focus has always been heavily placed on prevention. The unfortunate reality is that, even by undertaking the advice of these important messages, it doesn’t guarantee exemption from Australia’s national cancer taking hold. And when Jimmy and his mates were conceptualising the way forward, this was the important distinction that would set the foundation for Beard Season.
“We found out that most people at risk (of skin cancer) are aged 18 to 45, and most of them are men; they spend most of their time in the sun, they think they’re bullet-proof, and they’re the last people to go in and see a doctor to ask, “Is this ok?”. So we thought: this is our target audience. Working in advertising I knew they were the hardest people to speak to. Early prevention (messages) were being done amazingly by the big organisations but no-one was out there telling people to get a skin-check. We learned that melanoma is one of the most treatable cancers if it’s detected early, as well as being the most deadly, and we were like, why isn’t anyone telling anybody?! So we thought…that’s our piece of the puzzle. We had our target audience and our objective, but how were we going to make them do that?”
Growing up in the farming country of New South Wales, Jimmy and his friends were always looking for something out of the box when they were younger, and by drawing from experiences like the stress-relieving Wig Off ritual at university (which involved having to wear an outrageous wig at all times – outside of sport and the bedroom – through the exam period to alleviate the inevitable pressure) they went about brainstorming a likeminded, fun concept to get their message across. Unexpectedly, his farming heritage would provide the quirky inspiration they were looking for in serendipitous circumstances.
“We were literally at (Wes’) wake, and there were these old farmers in the corner of the bar (that) had amazing big farmer beards and we wondered why nobody our age had beards? This was six years ago, nobody was growing a beard our age or younger, so we were like – growing a beard takes a fair bit of commitment..the same kind of commitment that you kinda need to go and get a check. It’s a big thing…you’ve gotta take time out of work, you’ve gotta go get an appointment, you’ve got to actually go get it done. Beards take commitment; so does a skin check. So every winter from now on is Beard Season, and if you grow your beard you’ve got to get your skin check and use your beard to tell other people to get checked. People you work with, your family, your friends, your footy team…whatever….use your beard as a conversation starter; that’s it. So it started that winter and every winter since it’s been growing – excuse the pun!”
From then and to this day, his most effective means of passing on the message has been through a dichotomy of personal interaction and social media. By simply meeting people, starting a conversation, and feeding those encounters through the popular Instagram page, he has seen the campaign gain incredible momentum and take on a wooly-faced life of its own.
“Every day since I’ve had (the beard), I’ve got a photo with someone and said, “I met so and so, told them to get a skin check”…tagged them, and that’s how it grew…through social media. Because everyone I tag might tell their friends, and now we’re at a point where we’re getting a message from someone at least once a week saying they found something that could have turned really nasty. We’ve got over 80,000 followers on social media, ambassadors in 28 different countries”
The messages from those affected have been encouraging and an important reminder that Beard Season is making a difference. Even after the first season, Jimmy was hearing from people who had taken action from his fledgling campaign with numerous stories of melanoma being detected early specifically because of the Beard Season message. Even then he knew they were onto something of great importance and now, as the campaign is growing, Jimmy’s always looking for opportunities to involve people in the Beard Season adventure. And the benefits of his actions and enthusiasm are undeniable.
“(Recently we were) at the Australian Open of Surfing and we checked 116 people – we had a skin-check tent with one of the best people in the field who flew over from Western Australia. And out of those we found five Stage 2 melanoma – which is pretty much go straight to the doctor – and 29 early stage, or pre-cancerous, BCC melanoma. So that’s an indication of all of the people that we’ve told to go in and get it checked. Just in my group of friends we’ve had five people find melanoma, and that’s just in our small friendship group. So hopefully (we’ve affected) thousands. We’re one of the first groups to be pushing that “check message”, and it’s showing that it’s a huge part of the puzzle and good to see people following through”
Now that the Beard Season phenomenon is a registered not-for-profit and generating a huge following domestically and internationally, Jimmy’s focused on a new, equally crazy concept. An ambitious goal that, if achieved, would allow him to take Beard Season to new heights.
“I want to sell my beard for a million dollars. I got to a point where I thought I can’t just shave it off tomorrow…it’s got such a big story now. I thought, well we’ve never done any fundraising…just all of this for nothing, free time and favours, so we need resources to take this to the next level. I figured if I can sell my beard – take it off, put it in a glass case intact, along with all of the stories of all of the people it’s helped saved – then that would be a great way for a company or a philanthropist to come on board and help us take the next step”
That next step would be to increase awareness and action in the fight against melanoma by putting every cent back in to the charity. To project their message as far and wide as possible and see more skin check tents out in the public, a synergy with popular winter sports teams to spread the word, and specific targeting of rural areas to compound the flow-on effect he’s already witnessed. Ultimately this would take him closer to another important goal of beard season: franchising. And now with global ambassadors, Jimmy has a passion to empower those invested in the charity to make a real difference of their own.
“I’d love for everyone to be reminded every winter to get a check, and if we can get stacks of people growing beards every winter as a reminder – so that every time you’re walking down the street, regardless of whether you have a beard or not, and you see a beard, it reminds you when to get a check. Or to remind you when was the last time you got a check. We just want that to be really solid. And over the next year or two I want to be able to franchise the idea, so basically have someone running it in Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, Canberra, as well as New York, London, LA, Brazil, Rome…because there’s so many ambassadors but they kinda don’t know what to do at the moment, so I want to be able to hand them a package saying, you can run your events, this is how you get people in touch with the local dermatologist, this is how you build your community”
In an environment where growing out the beard is often a transparent attempt at making the scene (or a simple call for attention!), Jimmy and his followers have reappropriated the now iconic look specifically to inform; to save lives. Aside from the legacy that he’s created in the memory of a good friend, Jimmy’s motivation is simply to see action, and – more importantly – to generate a change in behaviour. Not for profit, not for prestige, but simply for the purity of being able to know that he’s made a difference. Somehow, amongst the crazy schedule he navigates working in advertising (and, of course, finding time to indulge in his other great passion of surfing) he’s made the decision to invest his own time for benefit of others; the definition of philanthropy. And hopefully a million dollar buyer surfaces soon, because if he’s been able to achieve all of this through conversations, social media, and favours, imagine the possibilities of Beard Season with some real capital invested in Jimmy’s simple yet essential message of awareness and action.
“Beard season (is) pretty weird and takes some “out there” commitment, but it’s fun and it really brings people together. It’s good to use social media for a purpose. If you wake up tomorrow and post a photo of us and say, “Hey I met this guy Jimmy Niggles…we drank some delicious coffee…he was a tad late but he was getting a barrel, so it’s okay! He lost one of his mates to melanoma, and I don’t want to lose you guys. Everyone who sees this photo, I want to challenge you to get a skin check and let me know how you went. You’ve got a month”. And then tag friends and family. It’s a bit of a hair-brained idea but it’s working”
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Check out Beard Season‘s website here
Like the sun? Go and get your skin checked today.