It's 9 a.m. on a Friday and a dozen employees of Creative Matters have gathered in a circle for a morning meeting at their Los Angeles office. But they're not here to discuss a new client or review one of their existing accounts. This is their twice-weekly "check-in," an inventory of emotions rather than projects. John Sullivan, one of the marketing and advertising agency's cofounders, starts the session by reading an Alcoholics Anonymous–style meditation: I forgive myself for being less than perfect; that's how I will love myself and others today. Then, everyone shares the imperfections they're wrestling with this week, discussing the pressures of work, relationships, and recovery, all the while heeding Sullivan's measured directive to "keep it real."
Support is an ingrained part of the office culture at Creative Matters, where all but one of the agency's 15 employees are recovering from drug or alcohol addiction. Founded in 2010, the agency has become a perhaps surprising success. It is currently working on campaigns for 10 clients and has grown a pool of 30 regular accounts. Most are local not-for-profits, but the team has also created ad campaigns for the American Diabetes Association and youth-travel agency Taglit-Birthright Israel.
Creative Matters grew out of Sullivan's own recovery process. Over two decades of heroin addiction and homelessness, Sullivan, 37, was arrested nearly 40 times, and in the 2000s he spent time in prison on drug convictions. One morning in August 2008, he overdosed on heroin in a public restroom in Santa Monica. Someone must have found him and called the police; he woke up in the hospital and was promptly carted back to jail. He would have been sent to prison again, but instead he was offered a shot at rehab. So that fall, Sullivan moved into Beit T'Shuvah, an addiction treatment center in Los Angeles. There he finally got clean, only to face a debilitating identity crisis. "I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life," he says. "If you don't have anything to be passionate about, it's hard to stay sober."
Sullivan had always been drawn to the visual arts, and Rabbi Mark Borovitz, Beit T'Shuvah's spiritual leader and a recovering alcoholic himself, encouraged Sullivan to go back to school for graphic design. Beit T'Shuvah board member Russell Kern, who runs a marketing agency, served as a mentor, teaching Sullivan about advertising and social media. Sullivan was then working as a night watchman at the facility, and he began tinkering with Beit T'Shuvah's Adobe InDesign software during his shift. As practice, he revamped the center's brochure. It was so good, they hired him as their graphic designer.
Beit T'Shuvah recruited a few fellow residents as interns, which led to an ambitious idea: Why not create an in-house advertising agency that would bring in revenue for Beit T'Shuvah and serve as a vocational-training site where recovering addicts could learn career skills? With backing from Borovitz and Beit T'Shuvah founder and CEO Harriet Rossetto—$12,500 in prize money from the 2010 Los Angeles Social Venture Partners' Social Innovation Fast Pitch competition—Creative Matters was born. "It's a social enterprise that's about saving lives," Kern says. "This is a rare blend of getting and giving in a lifesaving structure that I haven't seen anywhere else in the advertising world."
Interns typically spend nine months at Creative Matters, during which they learn copywriting, graphic design, photography, web development, and marketing. But beyond that, they also learn the basic elements of employment—how to show up on time, meet deadlines, and work on a team—and end up with newly polished résumés and portfolios that often put them on a track toward meaningful careers. More than 50 interns have gone through the program, and 70% have gone on to graduate school or full-time jobs in creative professions. A few, such as art director Kendl Ferencz, have joined Creative Matters' paid staff and now train other interns. "It's so cool watching people come in who felt the same way I felt and the light goes on in their eyes," she says. "They're a person again."
One of the company's campaigns has been for an unlikely customer: the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Ex-cons and recovering addicts might seem like the last people the LASD would hire, but Creative Matters' mission actually fits nicely with the department's Education Based Incarceration (EBI) Bureau, a collection of jail-based programs designed to reduce recidivism by teaching inmates job skills. "These people have tons of talent," says Senior Deputy David Bates, Creative Matters' point person on the project. "Just because you made a mistake doesn't change that."
Still, some of the Creative Matters staff find it odd to be on the other side of the law. "In what universe did any of us, when we were screwed up in life, think that would ever happen?" says photography manager Justin Rosenberg. "Most of us were trying to run and hide from the cops, and here we are walking into the headquarters of one of the largest sheriff's departments in the country. It's like, 'Huh?' "
Over the past year and a half, Creative Matters designed a new logo for the EBI Bureau, created ad copy and graphics, and conceptualized a series of posters now displayed in L.A. County correctional facilities. The LASD benefits from the communication power of a team that has some members who are familiar with jail culture, while Creative Matters staffers say it's fulfilling to help a population with whom they feel kinship. "It's been amazing for me to go back into the jails and work with the brass in developing this campaign," Sullivan says." We understand that demographic, because we were that demographic."
In February, Sullivan left Creative Matters to teach entrepreneurial skills to L.A. inmates and, he hopes, eventually start his own agency. But Creative Matters will continue without him. Borovitz would like to see the company—which is still supported by Beit T'Shuvah and has yet to turn a profit—stand on its own financially. "Hopefully someday it will make money," he says. "But really, the importance is that it's going to give people the opportunity to go to work, pursue a passion, hone their skills, and get a good job in the world. When you look at how many people have blossomed because of it, the money part pales."
A version of this article appeared in the April 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.