Beyond PSAs: How Agencies in Action Fights Hunger

Group Enlists Agencies to Volunteer to Work at Local Soup Kitchens

By Published on .

Bill Oberlander
Bill Oberlander
Agencies in Action is a New York-based social responsibility initiative that asks advertising executives and their employees to volunteer their time to serve food at a local soup kitchen in their neighborhoods. It works closely with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger to match its volunteer agencies with the closest and the neediest kitchens food pantries in the New York metropolitan area.

Currently, there are more than 1.3 million New Yorkers going hungry every day so the need is great. Crain's New York Business just reported that City Harvest, a nonprofit group that delivers food to food pantries and soup kitchens, has seen a 15% increase in requests for its donations.

We launched AIA this past spring with a campaign of wild posting parody ads, strategically placed near the offices of major New York agencies. The ads borrowed familiar imagery from some high-profile ad campaigns then running in the city, but applied some twists to the messages. For example, in place of the Apple iPod in its silhouette ads were silhouettes of homeless people with an "iHungry" logo. If you checked out what appeared to be a Brand Jordan ad, you'd notice that the flying Michael Jordan icon was brandishing not a basketball but a knife and a fork.

Agencies in Action's Big Wigs in Hairnets event.
Agencies in Action's Big Wigs in Hairnets event.
Each execution bore the call to action "Let's put ad agencies to work for the hungry." Our goal was to drive home the message that many New Yorkers are still living with hunger and that it's time for the ad community to do something about it.

The initial idea for AIA came to me about six years ago, when I was a creative director at Ogilvy. I was working on brands such as Ameritrade, AT&T Wireless, Motorola and Nestle Waters -- all services and products that are badges of the good life. Yet with Ogilvy's offices located in Hell's Kitchen on Manhattan's West Side, a neighborhood that still showed the vestiges of its hardscrabble roots, I'd seen plenty of the less fortunate side of life and its accompanying community of the homeless and hungry.

Obviously, I was aware of the huge gap between what we were able to create for our worldwide clients and what we were doing for the communities in our own backyard. I was determined to do something about it, and to do it in a way that was constructive and provided tangible help those in need.

It wasn't until I came to Cossette, New York, in 2008, however, that I was able to find the vision and the resources to execute the AIA idea. Cossette and its staff have been tremendous supporters of AIA, as has its president, Sally Kennedy, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.

Cossette wasn't the only agency to respond to the idea behind Agencies in Action, nor was Sally the only executive. To date we've had heartening responses from the New York advertising community. We have had 29 companies sign on as AIA volunteers. The list includes such agencies as Anomaly, Arnold Worldwide, BBDO, DiMassimo Goldstein, Droga5, Gotham, Hill Holliday, Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal & Partners, McCann, Ogilvy, Taxi and TBWAChiatDay.

Our reach has extended beyond the city's agency community as well: MTV joined up, as have the Four A's, the post production company Red Car, the media buying and planning agencies Mediavest and Initiative, the media strategy agency Naked Communications, the Hispanic specialty shop :30 Segundos and the advertising research firm Dynamic Logic. Together, these companies have donated more than 1,000 hours to staffing food pantries and soup kitchens in the city.

Clearly, the work of AIA is more important than ever before, with the global recession leaving more New Yorkers unemployed and more families going hungry. To help spread the word about our organization and its mission, we've held a series of events and promotions beyond our initial launch campaign. This includes a presence at Advertising Week, where AIA volunteers handed out snacks to high school students attending a seminar on career opportunities in the ad business.

A few days before Advertising Week, we held an event at the Grand Central Neighborhood Kitchen on Manhattan's East Side. We dubbed it "Big Wigs in Hairnets," and it featured top executives from the industry serving New York's hungry. We got a great turnout from our bigwig friends: Among those who came to help out were Nancy Hill, president-CEO of the Four A's; Tham Khai Meng, worldwide creative director of Ogilvy; Jon Bond, co-chairman, Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal & Partners; Jeff Mordos, chief operating officer of BBDO, New York; Doug Jaeger, innovation director at Taxi New York; Susan Credle, chief creative officer of Leo Burnett Chicago; and Cindy Gallop of Nancy, Tham, Doug, Susan and Cindy are all on our advisory board.

We also have an applied for 501c3 nonprofit status, which will allow us to focus on fundraising initiatives such as a special Strike a Pose Against Hunger fashion show we're planning for Fashion Week in New York next spring.

One goal of our outreach efforts has been to earn a place in the corporate giving world. Corporations have annual budgets set aside for charities, and I hope to find their sympathetic ears to get AIA on their consideration lists for donations, which will help make the organization stronger and more effective. We've also established AIA branches in other cities, including one based at Leo Burnett in Chicago, thanks to the efforts of Susan Credle.

We also expect to increase the number of hours we spend staffing kitchens in New York in 2010, as many agencies didn't get rolling until late in the summer. Based on our presence at Advertising Week and our other promotional efforts, we now have even more shops expressing interest.

For me, social responsibility is a must-have for our profession, not a lucky-if. Anyone working in the ad industry living such a privileged life ought to be able to help those less fortunate. If we can convince consumers to buy martinis that cost $18 and sneakers that ring up at $150, we should be clever enough to find a way to add some food, shelter and hope to the lives of this city's hungry.

In the face of this horrible recession and slashes in advertising budgets, we can all benefit by paying it forward.

Bill Oberlander is chief creative officer of Cossette/New York and founder of Agencies in Action.
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