Sunday, October 01, 2006

Online Storytelling & Cause Marketing: An Interview with Jonah Sachs of Free Range Studios

Before I left for Peru, I did an interview for the Big Vision Podcast with Jonah Sachs, the Principal of Free Range Studios, an advertising and marketing firm with offices in Washington DC and Berkeley, California that specializes in non-profits and socially responsible businesses. They created the award-winning film, The Meatrix, about factory farming, and the hilarious film, Store Wars, about the importance of organic farming.

I thought I'd share the transcript of the interview (done by CastingWords) with you.
Jonah Sachs: We were founded as Free Range Graphics, but we are actually called Free Range Studios now. Free Range Studios is an advertising and marketing firm that specializes in progressive non-profit and socially responsible businesses, but we are best known for our online storytelling. We do a lot of print design; we started in website design; what we do that people see the most is online storytelling.

As we've grown up with it, and we've been doing it since about 1998, it has suddenly become the sort of thing that everybody is talking about now, is how do you do online advertising content that is entertaining and engaging. We've been doing that in the non-profit and social activism space for this whole time. Up until now, we've really found that it is an advantage that cause marketing has over traditional marketing, just in that people like to pass along educational or cause-related messages more than they do traditional advertisements. With so many new people entering the space, hopefully, we'll be able to keep that edge. I know that corporations are really desperate to get into it as well.

We have offices in Washington DC and in Berkeley, California, and there are about 25 of us now. We work for clients across the board from non-profits like the ACLU and Greenpeace to more political causes. We did John Kerry for President, before that, Howard Dean for America. We also work with some socially responsible businesses like Green Mountain Coffee Roasters; we are working with Annie's Organic right now, and so a broad mix of people who are trying to make the world a better place.
Britt: How did you get started?
Jonah: I started Free Range with a friend of mine, Louis Fox, when we were 22 years old. We've been friends since we were seven, so we already had a very long collaborative history. Louis is a traditional artist and I was in the journalism field. We wanted to combine our talents and felt graphic design would be a good place to start. We had been working on films as kids for a long time; we liked the kind of mass communication. We also were both committed to social activism and felt shut out of the advertising world because we felt it was a really interesting medium, but we also felt that it wouldn't be right to spread messages that we did not believe in.

When we started in Washington in 1998, we had an idea that we would just give it a shot. We put up a website; we did not even have any practical experience in the field, but we put up a website and said that we only serve progressive non-profits. We hadn't started political or socially responsible businesses at that point. We just sort of put it out there, and it's a very small community and a very loyal community, especially in Washington, of progressive people. People really responded well to that, and that has been our niche ever since. We've stayed true to that even though some opportunities have come up to leave that, but that is what really gets us excited.
Britt: One of your most famous campaigns is "The Meatrix." Can you talk a little bit about its evolution?
Jonah: Well, I forget now how when we did it. 2002? When we first got together to do The Meatrix, we actually had this idea to do a Gratitude Grant to our clients as a way of just saying thank you and also getting more known in the field, so we put out this call for grant applications and said, we'll give away a free flash movie. We also did it because we wanted creative control over our project. We hadn't really had full creative control over a project yet, so we figured if we gave one away to a worthy cause, we could really get our creative thinking completely unfiltered through it.

We got about 75 applications and one of them came from Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, which is called GRACE. They wanted to do something about factory farming, and that has really been an issue that has been close to Louis' and my heart for a long time. It really combines so many different problems in society, from environmental concerns, labor concerns, animal rights concerns, health concerns and we just saw it as this great nexus of all these different things that if we could solve this problem -- which we probably never could completely solve it, it's so endemic to our society -- but if we can address it, then we are addressing a lot of different issues.

We said, "All right, let's take on this issue," both, because it's really important from an intellectual, social point of view, but also it's a great challenge creatively because it's such an unappealing, difficult message to get out there and groups in the past have really struggled to get people to look at this issue because it's unappealing, it's gross, it's ugly and so we said, "Let's take on this greater challenge and see if we can come up with something that talks about the issue in a different way."

We spent about three months really digging through tons of different ideas that we had and kept running into the same roadblock, that it was just kind of a downer. You were not giving anybody anything by telling him or her their food came from a terrible place; you were just kind of bumming them out. Maybe the hardcore people who are into this issue would be interested, but no one else would.

One day, we started talking about how important it was for people to realize that factory farming was so bad, that we had to create this fake world in which food comes from a happy farm. You were looking at food labels and how it has nothing to do with the reality; it's so bad we cannot even really look at it, and so we started saying, "Oh, you know that's a little bit like The Matrix. That got us thinking about that scene where Keanu Reeves is plucked out of that pod when he was first woken up, and I thought, that is like a factory farm.

One thing that we've gotten to learn over the years, is that when you start trying to build metaphorical bridges between an issue and a piece of pop culture, which is the best way to move anything anyway, if the bridges start getting built in a "meant to be" way, there is no reason that one bridge should also lead to another because maybe it's like The Matrix in this way, but why would it be like The Matrix in five other ways, too? When they start falling into place like that, and even down to the name, The Meatrix, was actually the last thing we came up with.

I remember sitting in a concert, we had everything done except the name. I don't know why, but we just couldn't think of the right name for it. When the name came, it was like it was pre-made and meant to be that way. It just felt right that there were so many metaphorical connections between the two and I think that people saw that.

We get instant feedback about how successful our stuff is because the web provides numbers, hard numbers about who sees what you do. We often know when we hit something just right; it will resonate with other people. We knew when we put The Meatrix out, in a lot of ways that we had hit something that resonated and was just meant to be. I think that we really succeeded also in making it kinds of consumable, fun and funny without trivializing the issue.

We've been trying since then to learn all those lessons and continue to make more stuff like that. Sometimes it's very successful, and yet there is no real formula for it. Each issue need its own creative thinking, and a lot of times we aren't able to come up with something like The Meatrix, but sometimes we are, and that is what is really fun.
Britt: That is one of your best known success stories. What's a lesser known success story?
Jonah: One of the really early ones that we did was a piece for Amnesty International about conflict diamonds. Amnesty was trying to push a bill that was in the House of Representatives trying to stop what they were calling "blood diamonds" or "dirty diamonds" or "conflict diamonds," which come from parts of the world where there is civil war and people are enslaved and tortured to bring diamonds out of the ground.

This was back in '99 when Flash was pretty rudimentary, you couldn't do a lot with it. We put together a Flash movie that was a spoof of the famous De Beers Shadow Hands commercial that took you back and not only showed the ring being put on the finger, but went in reverse and showed where the diamond came from.

This was in the days where anything that moves on the Internet was exciting, so we had a real leg up. We put it out there; we also put it on CD and ran a whole campaign to distribute it on Capitol Hill. It got into the hands of every member of the House of Representatives and that ultimately was part of the successful campaign that Amnesty ran to get a Clean Diamonds Act passed. That really changed the way the diamond trade worked in this country. That was a really good example of not just raising consciousness, which The Meatrix did, but actually kind of making change happen on the ground.

We also do some much more traditional kind of activism stuff. We design the home page and the website for the ACLU. Just in some really subtle ways that only maybe web designers can really appreciate, change the structure of how people are lead through that experience so that they can more easily take action and more easily become involved. In this world the name of the game, in a lot of ways, is collecting email addresses, getting donations and that is the metric by which a lot of these non-profits measure themselves.

Hopefully, they're not doing that at the expense of measuring the change they are making in the world too and some do, but a lot of the work that we do is really to help our clients build the organization, not just the message, so that they can get more signatures, get more on the email lists and hopefully build them into big supporters. You have to make all kind of different tools that do that, whether they are storytelling tools or just regular web tools. Now we are starting to combine a little bit more of the community web stuff with the storytelling stuff so that we can not only bring people in, but also give them stuff to really do online. That is what everyone is trying to do now, of course, with the Web 2.0 stuff.
Britt: What has been the biggest challenge of this work?
Jonah: In the eight or nine years that we've been doing this, it has been a hard time in terms of concrete victories for progressive causes and progressive ideas. I think that in terms of consciousness raising, in terms of pop culture adopting a lot of stuff that was maybe thought of as environmental fringe or as progressive, civil rights kind of fringe, I think it has penetrated pop culture a lot more. You can look at the covers of Vanity Fair, Newsweek or Time and everyone wants to run the next story about Al Gore or about global warming becoming accepted as fact. As far as real change on the ground and real political victory, it has been a really hard time, and keeping staff motivated, keeping ourselves motivated, sometimes it just feels like it's a losing battle.

At the same time, we've always felt that if you can raise consciousness and if you can get people familiar in speaking the language of progressive politics, then eventually it will come around. In a lot of ways, conservatives built their base starting on the real cultural and not necessarily political level. That's what we're trying to do now.

I definitely see the most hopeful thing that has come about since we've started doing this is just that everyone is now on the Internet and something like The Meatrix can be seen at the level of a primetime television show without being filtered through corporate interests. We kind of have the means of production now in our hands and the means of distribution, which is really amazing. We tried to make a documentary film in 1994 and we needed another $45,ooo just to work on the editing machines. Now, we've have it all in our laptops and we can make anything we want to make.

I think that there is a democratization that is going on despite the big losses that we've suffered on the global and political scale. There has been a real democratization and a diffusion of power. People are starting to talk to each other, spread ideas, spread issues, and hopefully, if that doesn't get hijacked by corporate advertising and stays true and real, people will raise their consciousness further and further and momentum will keep building, and this work will be worth it.
Britt: How do you keep inspired and not get burned out?
Jonah: I think in some ways a lot of the food for our souls comes from just the creative process. Everybody that works here is creative in some way, and many people in the traditional way that you think of creativity; coming up with fun ideas and coming up with fun visuals. In a lot of ways, taking each challenge in a little bit of a vacuum and saying, "Okay, maybe we're not going to save every endangered species at the moment, but let's really work on this particular species. How can we tell the story in a way that's never been told before?"

Meeting that small creative challenge is very nourishing. Then seeing your solution to the creative challenge being seen on a grand scale, see it come up on CNN, watch it get 100,000 views on the Internet or something like that, that's very fulfilling. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have changed the world the way that you ultimately hope to. Every once in a while, maybe once a year, we'll get a major victory and we'll feel like, "Ah, we've really changed something here." I think it's kind of a balance of both keeping track of the change that we are actually making in the world and just feeding our own creative spirits and having fun and coming up with fun story ideas.
Britt: What advice would you give someone who wants to use their design or marketing skills for positive change?
Jonah: First of all, there is definitely a large industry out there and a large potential client base of non-profits and socially responsible businesses, who are doing this kind of work, and there is whole industry that exists to serve that. I think a lot of people think there is no money whatsoever in a non-profit field or that non-profit means non-funded. Yes, it's not funded at the same level and a company of our size in the corporate world would certainly bring in a lot more money than we are. But I think the work is out there.

Penetrating the communities and the groups that you are interested in working with, as a volunteer or networking through those people and being truly passionate about the causes that you want to work on does buy a tremendous amount of credibility with the potential clients that you're working for. That's really what we did; we did a lot of really cheap, free work at the beginning for causes that we could speak passionately about. We weren't like every other design firm because we understood the issues and we really cared. You can't fake that kind of passion.

I think, if you really want to use your creativity for things you believe in, it's first really important to figure out, "What do I believe in? What's the one thing that I could work on?" Maybe you're working on corporate advertising stuff, but you want to do one pro bono project, or you want to do one cut-rate project a year. Find the one that you're most passionate about and really learn to speak that language of the people that you want to work with. I think that's really appreciated, because everyone in this world is taking some kind of financial hit for their passion, so they're very loyal to others that share their passion. That would be my main advice for it.

I think, also, whether or not you are able to do full-time cause-related work, the other thing that could help keep the creative soul alive is to make sure that the work that you are doing is not necessarily doing harm. Maybe you're not totally psyched about every piece that you're working on, but when a flag does go up in your conscience that maybe I'm spreading a message that's actually harmful, or is untrue or manipulates people in a way that's not helpful to the audience, just start taking small stands where you can to not do that kind of work. Funnel your creativity to something that at least you feel is neutral to begin with.

We've always advertised ourselves as simply working for progressive politics and non-profits. But at the beginning to get going, we definitely picked and chose some small, local business and stuff like that to keep ourselves sustained. It's all about making compromises and making sure that you're staying afloat, but also staying at least on a neutral level where you feel that you have integrity in what you're saying.
Britt: Is there anything else you would like people to know about your work or the work of Free Range Studios?
Jonah: The one thing that I've been thinking about a lot lately is how when we started doing this we always dreamed of a time where people wouldn't necessarily tune into primetime television and see their show with the advertisements that supported those shows, but they would actually tune into any station on the Internet that was completely free of corporate control. And one day that would be so mainstream that people wouldn't even be thinking of it as an alternative kind of thing. We hoped that we would become part of the vanguard of the alternative network.

Amazingly, much faster that I thought it was going to happen, it has begun to happen. But nobody is at the vanguard of it. Everybody is doing it and everyone's creating their own stuff, and the best stuff is rising to the top. That's both really exciting to see that the dream is coming true so quickly, but also it's scary too that we can't control it in any way and we can't stay on top of it, maybe saying The Meatrix or Store Wars comes out and is very popular, but we can't promise our clients or promise anybody that we can consistently repeat it because it's inherently a chaotic, democratic world out there of entertainment now.

I kind of regret that we don't get to be the dominant player in it, but then no one does. But also, I think that this is just the best time there has ever been for everybody to just jump into the mix and start using their social networks to promote the kind of message that they have that they're interested in getting out there -- cutting something together quick and dirty, making it fun, putting it out and experimenting with different messages.

I've found that it's not that difficult to get thousands of people, if not millions of people, to see your piece if there's some decent entertainment and some social value to it. I think this is just the best time anyone's ever had to sit down at their computer and get the word out there about whatever they happen to be thinking about. There's really nothing to stop it from diffusing on the Internet. It's a really good time, certainly, to be creative.
For more information about Free Range Studios, go to

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