How Stand Up To Cancer Won Over Big Celebs, Important Brands and the Medical Community

Adweek’s 2019 Brand Save honoree is fighting as fiercely as ever with the help of co-founders Rusty Robertson and Sue Schwartz

Katie Couric and Stevie Wonder onstage
SU2C co-founder Katie Couric and Stevie Wonder appear onstage at the sixth biennial Stand Up To Cancer telecast in 2018. Getty Images
Headshot of Diana Pearl

Getting dozens of celebrities to meet in the same room at the same time isn’t easy. It typically takes an event with the promise of the industry’s most prestigious trophies—the Oscars or the Emmys. Or a really good cause.

In 2008, an hour-long telethon dedicated to raising funds for cancer research hosted by Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C), then a relatively new nonprofit organization, attracted a host of boldface names: Christina Applegate, Lance Armstrong, Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge and Patrick Swayze, all of whom had been diagnosed with cancer, as well as musicians like Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Miley Cyrus, Fergie and Carrie Underwood, who together performed a song written especially for the occasion called “Just Stand Up.” Even then-presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama made an appearance via taped messages discussing how they’d tackle the issue of cancer in the Oval Office.

Stand Up To Cancer got all three major broadcast networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—to agree to air the special simultaneously, a rare occurrence in TV.

The event ultimately raised $100 million and became a biannual tradition. Stand Up To Cancer’s televised events, held every other September, still draw the same level of celebrity involvement. Last year’s telethon, SU2C’s sixth, was attended by nearly 60 celebrities. In a little over a decade, the organization has raised a total of more than $600 million for cancer research, and perhaps most impressive, has facilitated over 100 clinical trials and helped six drug therapies win FDA approval.

Will & Grace star Eric McCormack works the phones at the sixth biennial Stand Up to Cancer telethon in 2018.
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Nine women co-founded Stand Up To Cancer, including Rusty Robertson and Sue Schwartz, who are accepting Adweek’s 2019 Brand Save Award. A veteran of both the marketing industry and the nonprofit world, Robertson leads marketing agencies RPR & Associates and with Schwartz, the Robertson Schwartz Agency (RSA), and was part of the team that launched the Susan G. Komen foundation. Schwartz is a former evp of Revlon, Almay cosmetics and the Home Shopping Network. RSA heads up the marketing, branding and promotional initiatives for SU2C.

Both Robertson and Schwartz lost their mothers to cancer: Robertson’s mother died just weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2001, and Schwartz’s mother died of multiple myeloma—her sisters are cancer survivors as well.

Angry and confused about how long her mother’s cancer had gone undetected—the tumor had been growing for nearly two years before the diagnosis—Robertson started asking questions. What she discovered was that although there was endless cancer research underway, its progress was slowed because doctors and researchers weren’t effectively collaborating.

“Scientists were not sharing anything from one floor to another,” says Robertson. “They weren’t sharing any of their findings. … It was all because of intellectual property and publishing.”

Schwartz felt similarly—that the timeline of cancer research didn’t move quickly enough. “This cause is very personal to me,” she said. “When I was supporting [my family] in their journeys, it became increasingly evident to me that more needed to be done to accelerate the pace of cancer research and get new therapies to patients quickly.”

So Robertson, Schwartz and their co-founders—all of whom had personal experience with cancer, and in many cases, with cancer charities—established Stand Up To Cancer.

The organization creates 'Dream Teams' comprising up to 50 doctors, scientists, researchers and other experts. Here, representatives from SU2C, the National Cancer Institute, the Lustgarten Foundation and the American Association for Cancer Research announce the SU2C-Lustgarten Pancreatic Cancer Interception Dream Team and Translational Research Team in 2017.
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Their focus on collaborative cancer research is a distinguishing factor of their charity. It also creates “Dream Teams,” comprising up to 50 doctors, scientists, researchers and other experts, to home in on various aspects of “cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.” And because the organization isn’t specialized in one type of cancer, it can fund ambitious projects.

SU2C is also focused on providing opportunities for those who may not have them otherwise, thus opening more pathways to potential breakthroughs. They’ve given out 46 grants (each totaling $750,000) to young scientists to support high-risk, high-reward cancer research.

“We’re actually known as the organization that invented collaboration,” says Robertson. “We, for the first time, have more scientists collaborating and sharing their science, the good news and the bad news, like never before. That is the reason why we’ve been able to break history and have six FDA-approved therapies in 10 years.”

Another reason? Stand Up To Cancer’s long-term brand partners—organizations like American Airlines, Major League Baseball, Marvel and Mastercard—have helped it scale. These partnerships, Robertson says, allow the organization to penetrate other aspects of culture.

During every World Series and MLB All-Star Game there’s a moment when attendees and players hold up a sign with the name of a cancer patient they stand up for.
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During every World Series and MLB All-Star Game, for example, there is now a moment when every person in the park holds up a sign that reads “I Stand Up For,” followed by the name of someone who has been impacted by cancer. Earlier this year, stars of the Avengers franchise Chris Evans, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira and Paul Rudd all starred in a PSA for SU2C.

“Through our creative and eye-catching donor campaigns, we have been able to engage the public by seamlessly integrating SU2C’s mission into their lives,” says Schwartz. “When people dine out with their Mastercard, stand up with us at a Major League Baseball game or board an American Airlines plane covered in the names of thousands touched by cancer, they are reminded that they are not alone, and there is hope and progress.”

For a donation of $25 or more during the month of July, American Airlines, in partnership with Stand Up to Cancer, will add your name to an Airbus A321.

But the charity’s “stronghold,” says Robertson, is the entertainment industry. SU2C is a division of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, and has a massive team of celebrity ambassadors in its corner.

Robertson says celebrities like working with SU2C because of how open the organization is.

“Whenever we get some phenomenal news, we tell that to our donors, to all of our partners and we bring them in,” she says. “I think it’s been inclusiveness that we the founders made as part of our Magna Carta. It’s just been a win-win for all of them.”

While all of these players—the scientists, the celebrities, the brand partners—are important to SU2C’s success, no one does more for the organization than Robertson and her team of co-founders at the top. “One of the great things about having the nine women that started this,” she says, “is we each brought something so unique to the table.”

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This story first appeared in the Nov. 4, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.
Publish date: November 3, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT