Using Our Power for Better


Every day, I go into my office and never really know what to expect. Problems fly at me from all directions and I spend the day with some very smart people, thinking up the most creative ways to tackle those problems. We make big leaps, throw out seemingly non-linear ideas and somehow those thoughts collide together in some mysterious manner to become solutions. Magic. I love my job.

Today at the airport, I picked up a collection of essays called Design for the Other 90%, published in 2007 to accompany an exhibition by the same name at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Nation Design Museum. In it are 30 projects by engineers, designers and artists who have applied their design skills to create designs for the other 90% of the world – the 5.8 billion people who have little access to food, water, shelter and education. Sitting in a commercial airliner, 30,000 feet in the air, travelling at 560 mph away from my desk in Boulder, I read about some very smart solutions to some very unfamiliar problems.

This got me thinking about problem solving.

In my office, on a daily basis, we come up with ways to rethink media, create programs and platforms and utility to solve a marketing problem. Since more and more focus has shifted away from :30 tv spots where the audience is passive, it’s no longer enough for us to come up with a funny punchline to deliver a message. We now come up with ways to incorporate how we use media as part of our message and learned to repurpose our resources, rethink what is available to us and twist it, take it apart and reassemble it until it fits as a solution.

Then I read about the Q-Drum, a donut shaped water container created for developing nations that lets the user roll it by pulling it by a rope. This simple take on a water container relieved the century old problem of carry heavy containers of drinkable water across great distances. The drum is made of durable plastic with no breakable parts for places where repair tools are scarce; the rope could be easily replace by leather or braided plant fibers. The solution was a result of taking apart what was available and rethinking applications of resources to create a better solution. Sounds familiar.

It’s a hard comparison for me to make: what we do in advertising for billion dollar corporations to solving a human need in a third world country. But that’s sort of the point here. How we problem solve, and how the creators of the Q-Drum arrived at their solution is not that fundamentally different. So what if we took the way we problem solve in advertising, took our connections, our varied skillsets and applied it to other fields, to other problems? The potential of what we can solve is enormous.

The age of the rock star creative winning awards for one-off ads for the World Wildlife Foundation, often seen only by award show judges, seems even more old and selfish now. The internet has made our world tiny and neighborhoods are no longer defined by geographic lines. Our industry is filled with so much talent, so many lateral thinkers, so much access and money and resources that to not apply it to the rest of the global community is like sitting on a reservoir of water in a drought and refusing to share.

So, should we all quit our jobs and join a non-profit ASAP? Not at all. Are we separating Siamese twins with every banner pushing running gear? No, not everything has to be worthy and there is time, audience and place to be considered as part of every marketing problem. What we do ‘churns the wheels of commerce’ as one creative director friend once joked. We need what we do, to do more.

But some agencies, though not many, have already expanded their thinking to address problems outside of marketing without losing sight of their business’ bottom lines. They do it not to win an award or to get into a design annual, but simply because someone had a great idea for an issue that 90% of the world deals with, probably while thinking of a solution for a client talking to the 10% of us. Likely, we come up with a ton of these ideas a day, but the good ones that float to the top would benefit greatly from the support of an agency, in dedicating resources and time and opening a job number. It’s the first step in taking a ‘side idea’ and making it reality.

Our industry is in flux at the moment, which means that the course of it is yet to be determined. Can we as ad people – the ‘evil, manipulative trolls on Madison Avenue’ – become the next leaders in social responsibility? Can we take some of our lateral- thinking, problem-solving brains and apply them cross industry to industrial design, environmental design, science, even medicine? As we experiment with the direction of where our industry is going, can we find a balance between being an essential part of what stirs the economy and being one that considers every other field, creative or otherwise, as a possible part of the solution – and 100% of the world our audience?

Article Info
Posted by: Caprice Yu
Thinking About: Advertising / Collaboration / Creativity / Culture / Design / Leadership / Platforms / Sustainability / Technology
Location: NY, NY
Twitter: @capricey
  1. Steve Peck

    Great thinking here Caprice. I think that many people in advertising are realizing that we can harness the power of our expertise to do more than sell a sugary drink to the masses or convince people to trade up for a new car or phone. Technological advancements have increased our accessibility to spread those messages in ways that weren’t possible ten years ago. And some companies (hopefully more and more) realize that they need to prioritize society and humanity just as much as next quarter’s earnings statement. It’s a long road, but I think we’re making progress. GE is doing some cool things with sustainability and their smart grid movement. Product (RED) has raised millions of dollars for good. It’s a start, but certainly we can do more.

    I came across a related post today from William Gelner on this same issue. He provides an insightful view about 180 LA’s Rocket Project with Sony and how it has changed his outlook:

    • Caprice Yu

      It’s interesting that you bring up the Rocket Project because it helps expand the definition of who the 90% is. Of course when we think of humanitarian or socially responsible efforts, we usually think of developing nations first. But applying creative problem solving to how we deliver information to kids in this country is a great example of what else we can do when we redirect our ad-brains.

      What’s even more interesting is that it was done for a client and most likely started as a brief just like any other brief. It’s easy to do another high-production value tv spot for Sony, but in this case the creatives decided to do instead of show and in turn created something worth a lot more – outside of the marketing message, with a long-term impact.

      The Nike Chalkbot came to mind as another example. It solved a business brief but to the people it inspired (the ones who left a note and the riders who saw it), the message went way beyond marketing. I had an ad school teacher who said that we should always give people something back when we do an ad because we are intruding on people’s lives – that can be a laugh, a bit of info, or something to think about. I think there’s a lot more we can add to that list.

      Solutions like these do not fit for every client and every brief that comes across our desks, but for the ones that have the potential for it, I hope we can take full advantage. At least it’s a good way to start extending our reach towards ‘better’.

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