Thoughts
September 20, 2022

My best campaign that never ran

In the summer of 2020, New York was facing a series of overlapping crises. There were the big issues that defined the whole year for the whole nation, the pandemic and BLM protests, but more locally we were facing a crisis of identity. Midtown Manhattan skyscrapers sat empty. Broadway and Museum Mile were silent. In sharp contrast, our roads and bridges were slammed with thousands of transit-hesitant travelers and our parks were overflowing with New Yorkers practicing socially-distant socializing.

Frankly, there’s not much that marketing can do about most of these issues. Our industry can help around the edges, but the challenges of this turbulent year were too big for any little ol’ agency to address. But we could help with something – the knock-on effects of that last issue, our jammed-packed parks.

See, people create garbage. Many of our city’s parks added some capacity to handle this massive influx of refuse, but still, our communities were facing a massive litter problem. Coffee cups, chip bags, and beer bottles were everywhere. The rats loved it, but neighbors and fellow park-goers were pissed.

That summer, my team was approached by a friend who worked for a local “friends of” group for one of the major parks. A coalition of these non-profit groups were getting together to create an awareness campaign to help combat this growing problem, and they asked if we were interested in helping on this pro-bono project. Like any other New Yorker who loves this city’s parks would do, we immediately said yes.

At first, we kicked around a few punny ideas. “Don’t be trashy” and “don’t be a mess” were thrown up on the board. I was particularly fond of “don’t be a trashhole.”

These were cute, but they ultimately didn’t connect to why it was so important to treat this spaces with respect. So we backed up and put in plain language why we personally felt so compelled to be a part of this:

We need our parks now more than ever – and real New Yorkers know how to treat them right. Don’t trash your park, and if the can is overflowing, bring your junk back out with you.

Right there in that first sentence was a nugget of recyclable gold: “real New Yorkers” know what to do. If you’ve ever lived in NYC, you know the constant discourse over what makes a “real New Yorker” – is it being born here? Going to college here? Living here for 5 years? 10 years? It’s a frequent bar-booth conversation when you have mixed-tenure company. People in this city are low-key obsessed with what gives somebody their “New Yorker” card.

I personally don’t think the answer is any of those tangible markers. I think being a New Yorker is a state of mind, and a sense of ownership over this city. And how do we treat the things we care about? We treat them kindly and with love, and that means that we don’t litter.

Real New Yorkers don’t litter.

That was it. New Yorkers are proud to be New Yorkers. People respond to social pressure. And the most effective campaigns are clear and direct. This hits all three of those points. Anybody can be a New Yorker if they want to be, anybody can be part of the in-group. We brought this to life with a bold graphic treatment that could be used around the city:

There were going to be digital and physical activations, supported by groups across the city
I was particularly fond of the idea to supply branded napkins to businesses adjacent to the parks – to make the litter itself an anti-litter message

We pitched the idea to the working group, and they loved it. After all, they were real New Yorkers themselves. A couple things were tweaked around the edges, and then we were put on the calendar for the whole group to see and approve our work.

Ultimately, this is where that campaign ended. Between our first conversation and the final meeting, NYC and the rest of country had erupted in a much-needed racial reckoning. Our parks and our streets were the arenas of this movement, and plastering these spaces with messaging that implied some people were in a special group while others were not – even if it was an inclusive, voluntary one – simply didn’t sit right at that exact moment. As much as we all loved this concept, it was the right decision to scrub it.

As our indoor spaces have reopened in the two years since, the pressure on our parks has softened, though many are still woefully underfunded and understaffed. And the truth is that most marketing ideas in this industry die on the vine like this one. Most agencies lose most pitches, most ideas never make it to the client, the client discards most concepts, and most things get changed before they ever get published. Marketing is an an industry of constant failure.

And although it never saw the light of day until now, this is campaign is still one my favorites I ever worked on. (If you run a community organization in New York and want to use this idea, it can be yours for free – just shoot me a note and it’s on me!)

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, has a book coming out in 2023, and works with some cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

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