January 20, 2017

Podcast: The Ad Council Remakes Public-Service Ads for Digital Age

The Ad Council
The Ad Council achieved viral success with its “Love has no labels” campaign promoting diversity and inclusion.

In its 75 years of producing public-service messages, the Ad Council has orchestrated some of the most memorable campaigns and iconic characters in advertising history: Smokey Bear, McGruff the Crime Dog, "Friends don’t let friends drive drunk," "A mind is a terrible thing to waste," and, more recently "Love has no labels," to name but a few.

At any given time, the nonprofit is working on 40 campaigns in four issue areas: community, education, health, and safety. In this episode of the Business of Giving, Lisa Sherman, the Ad Council’s chief executive officer, talks about how the organization measures the impact of its campaigns, marshals hundreds of millions of dollars a year in donated media time, and develops new strategies to reach digital-age audiences, such as leveraging the popularity of YouTube personalities.

Listen to the full interview below, and/or scroll down to read a transcript provided by the Business of Giving.

Denver: When Americans talk about the classic and iconic public service ads from over the past 75 years, they might take note that they all have one thing in common: They were orchestrated and made possible by the Ad Council. And that glorious tradition continues today as the Ad Council brings attention to a cause, gets people to think differently about an issue, and ultimately changes their behavior. And it is a great pleasure to have with us this evening the President and CEO of the Ad CouncilLisa Sherman. Good evening, Lisa, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Lisa: Denver, thanks. It’s great to be here.

Denver: Give us a quick overview of the Ad Council, a bit about your history and your mission and goals.

Lisa: I’ve always been fascinated with the really rich history that the Ad Council has. We had our start back as the War Advertising Council because Franklin Roosevelt was quite a savvy president and understood the power of media. He looked to the media and advertising communities to help garner support for the war effort. And coming out of that, we saw things like “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” one of the most famous taglines ever, some war bond advertising, and at the end of the war– encouraged the industry to continue to do the good work around all-important social causes.

Denver: And you had some of the great iconic campaigns in history – Smokey the Bear, McGruff the Crime Dog. What were a couple of the others?

Lisa: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,” “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” so some very iconic taglines and campaigns: The Crying Indian, in fact.

Denver: That was the first Earth Day, I think, right?

Lisa: Yes, it was.

Denver: Before we dig into how the Ad Council works, first tell us what precisely is a public service ad?  And how does that differ from a commercial?

Lisa: Public service advertising is an ad that is to benefit society and the public good, and is used in donated media–free media–that media companies set aside for these important messages… unlike paid advertising which, of course, is paid.

Denver: I’ve always looked upon the Ad Council, Lisa, as one of the original collaborators– long before collaboration was fashionable.  It brought together different key players to create and execute a successful Ad Council campaign, and maybe we can speak about each of the players as we walk through the process. But first, tell us: how do you decide what social issues to choose and focus on?

Lisa: Well, Denver, as you know, there are no lack of important issues that affect our country. We work with an advisory board of researchers, educators, social scientists who really focus on what those emerging and important issues are. We consult with them and our board to identify those issues that we think can be impacted through communications.

Denver: And how many campaigns do you take on a year?

Lisa: At any given time, we have 40 active campaigns in 4 different issue areas: community, education, health and safety.

Denver: Once you pick one of these campaigns, what you have to do is produce spots. How does the Ad Council go about doing that?

Lisa: As you said, we are a convener and a collaborator. We work very closely with some of the leading not-for-profit and government agencies who work with us as subject matter experts on an issue area. And then, we work with creative agencies who we assign to a particular campaign to develop a strategy– the creative. Then we take that work out to the media companies and our partners who make sure that those advertisements get seen and heard.

Denver: Do these ad agencies do this on a pro bono basis?

Lisa: Absolutely. The entire model is a pro bono model. We get the best and the brightest of our industry, who give us their best talent, their best platforms, their best media in order to move the needle on these important social issues.

Denver: That is really sensational. What is the responsibility of the nonprofit organization, or the federal agency, in this relationship?

Lisa: In a traditional agency client world, they would be our client. We are there serving their needs to help them with whatever particular issue they’re working on. So, they provide subject matter expertise. They also provide some funding for the production of the work and whatever back end support is required– be it a website or the assets that would be available to ensure that we can close the loop on any sort of activation around the campaign.

Denver: Now, you mentioned a moment ago that the media donates their time or their space for these kinds of campaigns. What would you say the value of donated media is for a particular campaign in a given year?

Lisa: We are incredibly grateful and lucky to have very generous partners. Last year, for example, we secured over $1.6 billion in donated media across every type of media that you can think of – the traditional television, radio, print – but we also have very deep relationships with the digital platform partners like Facebook and Google and others. So, we are really focused on reaching our audiences wherever they are.

Denver: Has it been more difficult, Lisa, to get media donated now that nonprofits are actually paying for advertising?  I remember back in my day, a charity would never pay for advertising, or time, or anything along those lines; it was considered to be inappropriate. Now, it’s commonplace that they do, or they sponsor events or whatever.  Has that made it a little tougher with media to get them to donate their time? Or, does it really not have much of an impact?

Lisa: We have not found that it’s been that difficult. We have very strategic relationships, and we rely on our partners to help us. And frankly, a not-for-profit or government agency working with the Ad Council really gets to do that at scale, given the breadth and the depth of our partnerships.

Denver: This is no longer just television and print and newspapers and magazines; you have to really harness social and mobile to reach people today. What are you doing in that regard?

Lisa: I’ve never been more excited to be in the business of social change because of all of the new platforms and new technologies that not only take what we’ve done in the past– traditional media and mass media… We’ve always been able to have scale, but now we can be very targeted and very specific. So we’re reaching people in the moment, where we know they are, with the right message, to the right person, at the right time. That’s a very powerful combination. We can go broad, and now we can also go deep simultaneously.

Denver: That’s great. Well, there are so many campaigns to discuss. Let me pick a couple, and perhaps you can fill in our listeners a bit about how they’ve been and the impact that they’ve had. I have always been impressed with what you’ve done around foster care adoption. Speak to that one, if you would.

Lisa: We like to think about foster care adoption as one of the more difficult asks you can ever make of someone–asking someone to adopt a child out of foster care. We’ve been working on this campaign with Health and Human Services for over a decade, and I’m very proud to say that we have been able to identify and place over 23,000 kids out of foster care into loving homes through this campaign. We’re super proud of that.

Denver: Congratulations. Another issue that has gotten a lot of attention recently has been suicide, and you have a campaign around suicide prevention. What’s the messaging in that one?

Lisa: This is a campaign we’ve just taken on. We will be launching it later this year. Suicide– I don’t know if you know this– is the second leading cause of death among young adults. And for every youth suicide, it is estimated that 100 or 200 attempts are made. It’s really at epidemic scale. So we’re partnering with the Jed Foundation and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention on a digitally-focused campaign to help encourage young adults to begin to identify the signs of a friend who might be in trouble, and encourage them to help their friend get help.

Denver: Another leading cause of death among young people has been addiction, and you’ve also done a campaign on that.

Lisa: We recently partnered with Viacom and the nonprofit Facing Addiction on a campaign to help over 45 million Americans and their families who are directly affected by the disease of addiction. We launched PSAs in November that were actually produced by Viacom’s in-house agency, Velocity, and we are really proud of that work.

Denver: I would be very remiss if I didn’t mention this one because you recently won an Emmy for it. In fact, it is a first Emmy ever won for a PSA. What was it for?

Lisa: We did win an Emmy! We launched a campaign beginning Valentine’s Day 2015 called “Love Has No Labels.” And this was a campaign focused on the very important issue of diversity and inclusion. What’s so interesting about this campaign– which focused on really encouraging people to think about their own unconscious biases around issues of race, religion, gender and sexual orientation– is that it’s the first campaign that we’ve ever launched online, with a 3-minute beautiful video that went completely viral and has been seen by over 165 million people.

Denver: Including me.

Lisa: What did you think?

Denver: I thought it was great!

Lisa: We’ve obviously won many awards, and I think it really captured the hearts and imaginations of lots of people. But most importantly, we have quickly seen some impact results that are quite heartening, in that people are starting to really see that they can be more open-minded and start to question their own unconscious biases in ways that perhaps they hadn’t before this campaign was launched.

Denver: Well, picking up on that, I know program evaluation is a critical component of every Ad Council campaign, and it’s a pretty rigorous process. How do you go about it?  And what indicators are you measuring?

Lisa: We are very, very research-based and very, very impact-driven. Every single one of our campaigns has a specific set of KPIs and impact metrics that we lay out with our sponsors and clients at the beginning of the process.

We are very focused on impact over time. Many of our campaigns, we’ve had for decades. So as an example, the focus on drinking and driving. It’s been around for over a decade. We know that in that decade: 27% fewer lives have been lost because of alcoholic-related crashes, in part because of the work that we’ve done. That’s how we measure things over time. I mentioned the adoption statistic: 23,000 kids out of foster care. Autism awareness– is another long-standing campaign of ours. The percentage of parents with young children who have talked to their child’s pediatrician because they now recognize the early signs of autism has doubled. Those kids have a better shot at getting help sooner because of that level of awareness.

So, we focus on the long term, really driving impact. But then for some of our campaigns that just launched, we’re also extremely focused on impact. And in cases like that, we launched a Meals on Wheels campaign last year looking to secure volunteers to go and deliver meals to seniors who live quite isolated oftentimes. We know that in the three months since that campaign was launched, more than 10,000 volunteers have been recruited to serve meals to seniors.

So we’re tracking things very specifically– both in the short term, and most importantly in the long term– to move the needle on the issue.

Denver: On some of those long-term vexing problems, what’s the arc of a campaign in terms of: when do you see it beginning to get some traction, take some weight and  get some awareness… and then all of a sudden, you begin to see changed behavior? I would imagine it could take years in some of those cases?

Lisa: When you have something like “Love Has No Labels” in an environment that’s digital and social, that can get viral very quickly, I think the chances of seeing more impact more quickly can happen. But that doesn’t mean we’re done. We have rolled out two or three different versions and phases of that campaign. In more traditional media, it might take a little bit longer. But we are, again, not in this for the short term. We’re in this for the long haul, and  many and most of our campaigns, at a minimum, have a three-year cycle.

Denver: Any campaigns– among all that you’ve done– particularly resonate with you as one of your favorites?

Lisa: Well, I grew up with an iconic Ad Council campaign: the drinking and driving campaign “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.” I remember, as a kid always being very conscious of having a designated driver, so that personally resonated with me. I have a nephew who early on exhibited the signs of some behavior that we know know had him somewhat on the autism spectrum, and so that personally resonates with me. I’ve always been a huge advocate of diversity and inclusion, so I’m extraordinarily pleased with the impact that “Love Has No Labels” has had.

Denver: It is amazing how many Ad Council campaigns have become part of the lexicon in the way we talk and discuss issues.   I don’t think many people even realize where they came from, but it’s just part of the way we discuss issues with one another. Would that be the case?

Lisa: I think that it is. I think that many people know Ad Council campaigns by the campaign name or a tagline. I don’t know that everybody knows that they are Ad Council campaigns. In some cases, we talk a lot these days about “Should we be doing more of our own branding? Are we the shoemaker’s kids?” We have done an incredible job of promoting important social issues and driving real social change.

Denver: Well, how do you come down on that? What are you thinking?

Lisa: I think in the media environment that we’re in today, we absolutely need to elevate the profile of the organization. We have so much to be proud of. Our partners and the unprecedented collaboration we have with an industry?  We should beat our chest a little bit more.

Denver: All right. Well, that gets me to my next question.  The Ad Council itself is a nonprofit organization, so you have to go out there, beat your chest a little bit so people will continue to give you money. Tell me about your revenue model.  And what’s the breakdown of the funding that you receive?

Lisa: Denver, as I mentioned, the nonprofits and government agencies that we work with contribute in some small way to each of these campaigns, but they obviously can’t afford the breadth and the depth of the campaigns that we develop for them. And so we reach out to our industry to help close the gap and underwrite those costs that our nonprofits can’t cover.  We have typical fundraising sources, as most nonprofits. We do events; we do corporate giving; and we have some fees for service for the work that we do.

Denver: We talk a lot on this show about corporate culture, Lisa, and I know you’ve been the Chief Executive Officer over at the Ad Council for about two years.  I know you’re transforming the corporate culture over there. Tell us a little bit about your thinking behind that… the kind of culture you’re trying to create.

Lisa: I think we’re going through some transformation in our industry. It’s unprecedented. We’ve never seen anything like it. I think that I’ve been a huge advocate for ensuring that this organization really evolves so that we can continue to do the great work that we’ve done for the past 75 years. And I think in order to adapt, we need to be thinking about how we do our own work through greater collaboration, more team work, more openness and transparency; taking risks and trying things; learning that failure is not fatal, it’s feedback.  I think that those are the sort of key elements of the culture at the Ad Council that we are building.

Denver: And taking that one step further, how are you reinventing yourself and the campaigns that you conduct?  As you just mentioned a moment ago, you’re 75 years old, and so many challenges face 75-year-old organizations– both internally, but also externally–the way you go about your business, the way you deliver your message. How are you doing that?

Lisa: As I said before and I mean it sincerely, there’s never been a better time to drive effective social change, given all of the resources available to us in the social good space. So we are looking at:  who are the right messengers for our message to the right audiences?

One of the things that I’m intrigued with are YouTube celebrities. These are people who have gotten quite a bit of notoriety of late, whose names we’ve never heard of, but they have millions and millions of people that follow them and listen to them and tune in to them daily, weekly. One of the programs we’re doing is: we’ve identified some of the top YouTube creators, each of whom cares very deeply about social issues.  They have adopted one or two of our campaigns, and they are now producing content for that issue and pushing the word out about that issue to their audiences.

A guy named Joey Graceffa: 2 million followers on YouTube– took on “Love Has No Labels” because as a gay man, he cares passionately about this issue. We’ve got others who have taken on bullying prevention. .

Denver: And you got some gamers involved, too, right?

Lisa: Gamers for Good! We’ve got Creators for Good. We’ve got Gamers for Good. We are about harnessing the power of the voices that are out there today that can help us tell our stories.

Denver: As they say, not your grandfather’s Ad Council. It’s a brand-new ballgame. Well, Lisa Sherman, the President and CEO of the Ad Council, I really want to thank you so much for being here this evening. If listeners want to learn more about the Ad Council, or maybe see some of these campaigns for themselves up close, where do they go?

Lisa: They would go to, and learn everything they can learn about the Ad Council.

Denver: Great. It was a real pleasure, Lisa, to have you on the program.

Lisa: Thank you so much, Denver.