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We’re not saving the world with advertising – oh wait, maybe we are.

By Lenora Rand, SmallGood Co-founder

Roller Coaster

Back when I started in advertising as a copywriter, a couple decades or so ago, the creative briefing process always reminded me a bit of a roller coaster ride.

First, we would get briefed on our creative assignment by a very bright, sincere and enthusiastic planner – someone who’d done all kinds of research about our target audiences and looked at the cultural trends and had gone through a “deep dive” with the clients and whose job it was to synthesize all that into a short document that would inspire us young, eye-rolling copywriters and frighteningly hip and cynical art directors to reach down into our burning cores and come up with some creative magic.

During the briefing, the planner would stare at us with piercing eyes and a tremble in their voice and try to instill in us the significance of what we were about to go out and do. The best of them were part data/research/anthropology nerd, part pop culture coach, part soul-lifting preacher.

Often they would leave us young creatives feeling pumped. We were gonna go out and create amazing, award-winning advertising, that might even change the world! Yes!

As soon as they left, and we were alone in the room with our creative director - someone wiser and older (you know, like 38 or 40), someone who’d been doing this a while and who usually had a few awards under their belts - we would hear some parting words from them before we went off to come up with our big ideas to launch a nutrient-packed breakfast cereal or to let people know what was “new & improved” in the topical ointment our client was trying to sell.

And often what the creative director said to us was some variation on this sentence:

“It’s not brain surgery. It’s not rocket science. And we’re not saving the world, folks.”

They said it, and I probably said some variation on it when I became a creative director myself, because they didn’t want us to tense up and let the feeling that we had to do something GREAT and BIG and AWARD-WINNING keep us from being able to even get started. And it was helpful.

Because as most of us have noticed in our own lives, the need to do something great can be the enemy of doing anything at all.

Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

I think about that roller-coaster of “this is the most important and amazing thing you’re ever going to do in your life” and “it’s not brain surgery” every time we start a new assignment here at SmallGood, the strategy and creative consultancy I founded with Mylene Pollock a little over a year ago. Because now, of course, Mylene and I are both the planners and the creative directors rolled up into one and we have to create our own sense of balance between “star-reaching” and just putting one creative foot in front of the other, and getting the work started and done.

The thing is though, most of our clients these days are trying to change the world in some small (or huge) ways. They are trying to make a positive impact in people's lives. So we can tell ourselves “it’s not brain surgery.” But it’s harder to convince ourselves that our work couldn’t possibly save the world, or at least a little corner of it.

I think about that in our work with LaManda Joy, an accomplished speaker, author, teacher and kick-ass gardener turned social entrepreneur who believes organic gardening is a quiet but revolutionary act that can help us all have lives that are simpler, greener, healthier, even happier. And who’s the founder of City Grange, the destination garden center, designed to teach, inspire and empower today’s urban gardeners.

I’ve thought about it in the work we’ve been doing with the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, a scrappy, passionate and dedicated nonprofit whose mission is to end violence in Chicago by teaching and putting into practice Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of nonviolence. Yeah, so small mission there, right?

But they understand how high the stakes are. Violence is hurting everyone is this city, whether we realize it or not, so the staff and volunteers of INVC are out there on the front lines, getting results in the neighborhoods they’re working in – Austin, Back of the Yards, West Garfield Park. It’s amazing to see them in action. Their courage and perseverance in the face of what often seems insurmountable is inspiring – it always reminds us of those words from Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Jeronimo Bernot on Unsplash I’ve also been thinking about that roller-coaster of “THIS IS HUGE AND IMPORTANT” vs “this isn’t rocket science” as we’ve been working with a group called Public Narrative over the last couple months. We were introduced to Susy Schultz, the president of Public Narrative by Tara Dabney, one of our clients from Institute for Nonviolence after Tara took a 3-day training that PN offers and was raving about it. Public Narrative coaches nonprofit communicators (over 2,500 of them last year alone) in how to tell their stories so they get heard. And they help connect these community-based organizations with journalists – journalists with integrity, who do their jobs day in and day out because they believe their work is crucial in maintaining a democracy. These are reporters and editors and photographers who believe that part of their job is making sure that stories of women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and others from the margins are being told.

These are journalists who follow in the footsteps of the great Chicagoan Studs Terkel, who always went the extra mile to report news from the real people who make Chicago - “…news that’s bottom up rather than up, down…”

Here’s a little confession – I’ve been writing this blog post this morning to procrastinate – because I have a creative brief to write – we’re about to brief some young creatives on the assignment to redo the website for the Institute for Nonviolence, building off the work SmallGood has been doing with INVC over the last several months to help them better articulate their meaning and messaging and to define their brand identity. And doing that well, writing a brief that inspires great creative work, is hard. (Shout out to all you planners I’ve worked with in the past: I have so much respect for you!)

I honestly can’t remember all the creative briefs I’ve worked on, throughout my years in advertising. But I do remember the best ones. The ones that sent me out fired up to do great things - kind of like Coach Eric Taylor did with his Dillon Panthers in the TV show “Friday Night Lights.”

These days, as Mylene and I are both the planners writing the briefs and the creative directors helping motivate and guide the creative work, we still sometimes find ourselves saying, “It’s not brain surgery. It’s not rocket science.” Because wanting to do the best can get in the way of doing the best you can. It can make you just want to pull the blankets over your head and sleep the day away. Or eat a vat of Dorito's Nacho-Flavored Tortilla Chips.

Not that I’d know anything about that.

But rarely, if ever, do we find ourselves saying, “You’re not saving the world here.” Because we’ve come to believe the world can be saved in lots of small ways, by thoughtful, soulful, undaunted committed citizens working with any meaning-filled, purpose-driven brand that wants to leave the planet better than they found it.

Yes, even if your company is selling topical ointment. Or breakfast cereal. Or real-estate solutions.

Want to support the work of Public Narrative as they help make sure important stories are being heard? And the work of journalists who are putting people over power? Our SmallGood team will be doing that by going to what’s said to be one of the best parties of the year, The Studs Terkel Awards, September 20 at Row 24, 2411 S. Michigan Ave. And you can get tickets and join us. Hope to see you there.

If you can't make it to the awards show, you could simply donate directly to Public Narrative - your support allows them to offer their trainings free or at a greatly reduced rate to all kinds of worthy and often struggling organizations whose stories need to be heard.

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