Writing about pro bono work is supposed to be easy, right? These are passion projects, for crying loud. The words are supposed to flow straight from your heart to the page — a piece of cake.
Not for me. Thinking about it sent me into a tailspin: I made excuses to myself. I procrastinated. I reorganized that top desk drawer full of receipts and paperclips I never use. I stared blankly at the page hoping for the words to jump out at me. They didn’t.
Then I realized I’m an art director, not a writer. How about I draw you some pictures instead?
It was the early 2000’s, we had just survived Y2K, George W. became president, and I may or may not have owned a Juicy Couture tracksuit. My Intro to Graphic Design class had been asked to design the collateral for the local Addy Awards. It was a contest, and my team won. We designed and developed the entire theme for the awards show, got to go on a press check, and were later honored — onstage! — at the show. Holy shit, that was cool. And this was the beginning of my career in advertising.
Cut to my first presentation to a CMO. I was terrified. I had no idea how to stand in front of a room and convince this marketing genius, who had, incidentally, built an entire airline brand from scratch, that he should buy MY idea for his next ad campaign. The thought of it blew my mind. While I tried not to puke, my creative director told me, “Ellen, they are paying you to be here. They want to hear what you have to say. Remember, right now, YOU are the smartest person in this room.”
And, lo and behold, I began to believe I was smart. Maybe not like science-math smart — I failed biology and barely made it through geometry. But somehow, my brain makes things that connect with people.
And I’m guessing if you’re in this business, your brain does that, too.
Most days, I use these powers to sell stuff. But on two occasions, I have been lucky enough to use those powers for good — to actually help people. To maybe, possibly, change someone’s life.
Here are a couple more pictures.
While I was at Venables Bell & Partners, four of us piled into a car and drove across the state of Montana for a week. We interviewed people who had gotten caught up in some serious drugs. We tried to figure out how and why this happened. And we called our moms every night.
We created a campaign that actually changed behavior. And in the process, we changed lives. And it was the most rewarding thing I had ever done.
And the work worked; According to those whose skills are collecting data, teen meth use in Montana declined by 63 percent, and adult meth use declined by an even more impressive 72 percent. In addition, crimes related to meth use fell by 62 percent.*
More recently, at McKinney, I was part of a team that developed a campaign for the Dollar General Literacy Foundation and the Ad Council. The goal: help adults get their high school equivalency diploma. It seemed like a pretty straightforward task. But when we dived in, we quickly realized these adults weren’t like us. Most of them didn’t graduate high school because of responsibilities I couldn’t even imagine having at the age of 17.
They were taking care of sick family members or working to help with bills. These types of challenges kept them from graduating high school — effectively beginning a journey of having to fight their way back to better themselves, often times feeling like they were doing it alone.
We came to understand they didn’t need to be reminded of the obstacles in their way. What they needed was to know they didn’t have to face them alone. There was help out there for them. It was that simple. Since the inception of finishyourdiploma.org, over one million adults have taken the next step toward their diploma. Only 29 million more to go, and I believe we can get there.
Let me draw you one more picture.
A while back, Ad Council President and CEO Lisa Sherman gave a presentation at McKinney. She talked about the success of the “No One Gets a Diploma Alone” campaign, and she showed us how it changed the lives of real people. She cried. And so did I. I never knew that by simply showing up I could be a part of such change.
So the next time you’re organizing your top desk drawer and thinking how could little-old-you possibly contribute anything meaningful to the world, remember: YOU are the smartest person in the room. Be yourself. And give that gift to someone who can use it.
*Montana Meth Project: Has It Curbed Teen Meth Use? – The Recovery Village