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Report from New Orleans

As soon as the storm hit New Orleans, I emailed area members of the Company of Friends, Fast Company‘s readers network to see whether there was anything we — and other readers — could do to help. It took awhile for area readers to respond, but once many people had relocated and gotten back online, reports began to trickle in. The longest and most promising report came from Robbie Vitrano, cofounder of Trumpet Advertising, whom I met earlier this year while in New Orleans for a conference. Here’s what he had to say:

As soon as the storm hit New Orleans, I emailed area members of the Company of Friends, Fast Company‘s readers network to see whether there was anything we — and other readers — could do to help. It took awhile for area readers to respond, but once many people had relocated and gotten back online, reports began to trickle in.

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The longest and most promising report came from Robbie Vitrano, cofounder of Trumpet Advertising, whom I met earlier this year while in New Orleans for a conference. Here’s what he had to say:

Coming up for air in Atlanta. Surreal. We’re establishing an office here, in Baton Rouge, and in L.A. Amazing outpouring of support — overwhelming. Plenty of good in this.

For N.O., that clean sheet of paper that comes from hitting rock bottom. Andrei Codrescu, our unofficial poet laureate said on NPR, “For centuries, the nation has sent us their shit and we turned it into art. But this time our blues are too big.” Amen.

The old saw about N.O. is that what’s good about the place is also what’s wrong with it.

This dear, eccentric, creative, cultural-clinging place. Many of us wondered if that legacy could be harnessed and put to work in the modern world; in the wheels of capitalism. Especially, those with heart-on-sleeve arrogance. People like the ones attracted to Trumpet.

But (like Codrescu understands), much of the art comes from poverty. And poverty and everything that has contributed to it has manifested as this apocalypse.

Irony of this was a summit held just last week, the Cultural Economy Summit, initiated by an old friend and bright shinning political light, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. Mitch had the brilliant insight to develop a vernacular everyone could understand: money. He commissioned an economic development firm called Mt. Auburn to assess the impact — jobs, dollars — of the creative “cultural economy,” Richard Florida’s creative class. No surprise the numbers were huge. Eclipsing tourism (another slippery slope for our city/state, today and tomorrow with the thousands of low-wage workers displaced/unemployed for months more slippery than anyone imagined). The consultant proclaimed that Louisiana could be the national and international model for this type of thinking.

The creative in me, the ad man, beamed at that thought. I love this city. I love the nuance, access, texture, soul. I am enraged and entertained by her dysfunction. NOTHING is New Orleans. Charles Kuralt called it “the unique American Place” after acknowledging that unique is an almost impossible word to define. And now there was some real energy about putting it to work in a way I completely understand.

New Orleans itself is the ultimate creative assignment. The ultimate branding opportunity. Working with the Louisiana Department of Economic Development brings another opportunity to evolve that effort, tell the story.

Now it’s a different job. But requiring no less a creative solution. We’re all familiar with the concept of creative destruction. That comes off as far too glib, but room has been made for innovation, wisdom, and courage.

What’s next? Yes, exposed: geographically, socially, culturally. That “clean sheet of paper.” New Orleans cannot be remade like she was before. She can only be new.

A three, five, 10 and 20 year plan. We dream big, edit mercilessly then agree. Sign a contract for a new New Orleans. Authentic, inside-out branding. Purpose. There’s a place for the best minds in our biz in this process.

New Orleans has been grappling with some of the same challlenges — challenges that readers brought up during the 1999 CoF Roadshow — for some time now. Perhaps this disaster — as horrible as it is — is the catalyst people will need to accomplish true change.

If you’re interested in helping folks in New Orleans, you should of course consider the Red Cross. And if you’d like to lend your support to Robbie in his efforts, reach out to him via Trumpet Advertising.

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