‘I Partipicate’: When serving ourselves is anything but selfish

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the privilege of working as Creative Director on the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s ‘I Participate’ campaign. Mayor Bloomberg launched it yesterday in Times Square and the first ad featuring the First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Biden aired on Good Morning America this morning.

It was truly a team effort compromised of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, Freeform led by director Jesse Dylan, Ashton Kutcher’s company Katalyst, multiple truly supportive sponsors (including AARP, MedCo, United Health Group, Fidelity, Welcome Back Veterans and Major League Baseball), all four major television networks and talent agencies representing a dozen major stars.

Over eight weeks we created seven PSA’s, a print campaign, launch events, the ‘I Participate’ site, several sponsor micro-sites, viral and online marketing, twitter, facebook, myspace and youtube communities, and a bunch of really cool t-shirts!

I mention all this because it speaks to what I believe is an important role for advertising to play in the future.

Obviously its traditional role is to sell products and to generate profit on behalf of companies and their shareholders. Yet increasingly, through corporate social responsibility programs, best practices and “green” initiatives, brands have taken an active role in social change.

This is as expedient as it is admirable. In a transparent marketplace populated by well-informed consumers armed with the web and social networking tools, brands have increasingly come under fire for dictatorial, duplicitous or disingenuous behavior (“greenwashing”, the Facebook Whole Foods boycott and the ‘United Breaks Guitars‘ to name just a few recent examples).

Yet when all the partners listed above were asked to contribute to needs larger than our own, and appeal to values higher than our own self interest, traditional competitive barriers dissolved. Imagine NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox participating in the same initiative, their stars appearing in the same ads, and their story lines – across 59 prime-time shows on all four networks – being re-written around a common purpose. (Consider that a sneak preview.)

In the last few years I couldn’t help but get a sense that advertising as an industry has been defending itself. Some agencies and industry spokespeople have chosen to defend the way things were, some have tried to adapt, and others have fully embraced the necessary evolution of the industry.

In my mind the industry will only find renewed purpose (and thereby offer full value to its clients) when it redefines the service it provides in a way that’s appropriate the world that we live in. That world, as a consequence of multiple global crises, accelerating technology and newly empowered consumers connected through social networking tools, is radically different from the one that fueled industry prosperity ten years ago.

I believe the advertising industry must embrace social contribution just as many of the most evolved brands have. There are exciting precedents to learn from including the UNICEF Tap Water and Millions Projects spear-headed by Droga 5 and the Earth Day phenomenon that began with the WWF and Leo Burnett in Sydney.

Yet too many agencies still marginalize PSA work because there is not as much money to be made. What they overlook is a broader definition of “profit”. By servicing the very real needs of others in partnership with their clients, agencies will not only improve the lives of others, they will guarantee their own survival.

Please participate by visiting www.iparticipate.org and volunteer anyway you can. Mentor a child in screenwriting, take a meal to a military family or help regenerate a community park. It’s a great cause – all of us! – and a chance to play a part in creating our future.

Mayor Bloomberg at the launch in Times Square yesterday.

Mayor Bloomberg at the launch in Times Square yesterday.