The nation’s only nonprofit ad agency crafts messages with a mission
“I flail around so much—I spill a lot of coffee.”
Gary Mueller sits in his office chair, briskly applying pen-stick stain remover to a fresh coffee blotch on the cuff of his khakis. Tall, tanned, and athletic, he wears a plain gray T-shirt that complements his salt-and-pepper goatee, trimmed extra-close like his hair. What Mueller, 42, self-effacingly calls “flailing around” could be more gently described as restless enthusiasm, evinced by busy hands and a constant readiness to speak. As president of Serve Marketing, the nation’s first and only nonprofit advertising and marketing firm, he’s got plenty to talk about.
Based in Milwaukee, Serve provides nonprofit groups—what Mueller refers to as “underserved causes”—with marketing strategies and creative services. While causes such as breast cancer research, aids prevention, and drug abuse education enjoy celebrity endorsements and high media profiles among America’s charitable concerns, Serve caters to smaller, more obscure, lesser funded, and sometimes local groups. The Wisconsin-based Shaken Baby Association, the Family Violence Partnership, the Peace Council, and the Brain Injury Association of America are among its clients. Mueller says the agency is a revolutionary vehicle, not only for leveling the playing field among philanthropies, but also for challenging the advertising industry’s uneven approach to nonprofits.
“Every big ad agency handles some level of pro bono work,” says Mueller, who also works full time as creative director at the for-profit firm BVK. “But not all agencies put the same strategic criteria into developing those campaigns. Many don’t even develop a strategy or a plan; they just come up with a creative poster or PSA [public service announcement], pitch it, and don’t worry about its effectiveness. We need to apply the same level of strategic thinking we would give to any paying client, and the same level of insight and creativity.”
On a late-summer Monday in Serve’s sparse downtown office, Mueller is leading a presentation to members of a local group dedicated to thwarting teen pregnancy. He excitedly shuffles through a series of mocked-up ad campaigns. In one set of print ads, photos of shirtless teenage boys have been manipulated to give them enormous pregnant bellies. An alternate guerrilla-marketing concept involves leaving swaddled dolls on the doorsteps of the city’s most influential civic leaders. As with most of Serve’s portfolio, the key messages are delivered with provocative, attention-grabbing imagery and direct language.
“Because we work with underserved causes trying to get on the radar, we tend to go edgier. It breaks through the clutter,” says Serve account executive Sara Knoll. Currently, she and executive director Heather Aldrich are Serve’s only full-time staffers; the bulk of the agency’s creative work comes from a wide web of volunteer professionals who donate their time, expertise, and production resources. As Serve has garnered more attention within the industry, the number of calls from would-be volunteers has jumped.
“It’s not always easy to [use volunteers] because a lot of agencies don’t want their creatives to work outside for anyone else,” Knoll says. “But people are starting to know us and what we stand for. We’re not trying to hire their people away.”
Mueller’s bosses at BVK provide a solid chunk of funding and support for Serve, but as with any nonprofit venture, there are ongoing struggles. “It’s a big undertaking,” Knoll says. “We don’t look for big salaries. We constantly have to be fund-raising for ourselves in order to pay rent. But it’s always for good causes, and our hope is that other agencies will be inspired to do similar things.’
As for what inspired Mueller to create Serve in the first place, he proudly points to his work with the Shaken Baby Association, a small Milwaukee-area group dedicated to educating parents and caregivers about the dangers of shaking infants and small children. When her own son suffered severe brain damage after being shaken by a sitter, Shaken Baby Association cofounder Margie Stelzel decided to team with other mothers in hopes of raising awareness about a largely unpublicized problem. They eventually sought help from Mueller.
“Here was an organization that had no money, no well-heeled board, no connections, and there was this terrible epidemic in Milwaukee, this rash of shakings,” Mueller recalls. “I thought, if you had only one chance to get the message out, what would you do?”
The resulting campaign focused on a bold radio spot: A baby cries uninterrupted for nearly 60 seconds, followed by a concise admonition that, no matter how tired or frustrated you are, you “never, ever shake a baby.” Mueller helped to organize a so-called radio roadblock in which every major station in Milwaukee broadcast the spot at the same time. Not only did the event generate media coverage for the cause, but it also captured the attention of a state senator who subsequently introduced legislation to mandate education on the topic.
“What Gary is doing is saying, ‘I’ve had a good life and now I’m giving back,’” Stelzel says. “It’s not because of money; it’s trying to make this world a better place.”