American high-school graduation has a few hallmark traditions. The cap and gown, the diploma, the epic house party, and the grad speech. That address is a time when one of the students’ own talks about what the moment means, reflecting on the past four years, taking a look at the future, and making a few jokes along the way. As high school students across the U.S. celebrated their graduation earlier this spring and summer, a new PSA campaign emerged among the valedictorians and senior speakers.
More than 250 students, in over 134 cities and 24 states, used 60 seconds of their speech to make the same pledge. “In the next four years, 17 million of us will be eligible to vote. That makes Generation Z this country’s largest swing state. Not red, not blue, but human. And together we have the power to shape the world we want to live in. So today I’m pledging to vote on three basic human rights: equality across race, gender, and sexual orientation; safety from gun violence; and action on climate change. If you care about the world we’re inheriting, I encourage you to take the pledge with me. Together we can create a healthier, safer, brighter America. We are the adults now.”
The pledge is part of “Donate:60”, the first campaign from a collection of 17 different ad agencies that have joined forces in a new non-profit organization called Potential Energy. Founded by John Marshall, chief strategy officer at Lippincott, the group includes award-winning agencies like Droga5, Barton F. Graf, R/GA, and Work&Co, and aims to use their skills in creative communications to educate and advocate for action on climate change. (After talking with students, it was clear both equality and gun violence were two other issues they wanted to address during their commencement speeches, so those messages were added.)
The idea for the coalition came after Marshall’s son took a course by Harvard’s Director for the Center for the Environment Dan Schrag, and couldn’t understand why more people weren’t aware of the solutions for the climate energy challenge. The disconnect between what he was learning and what was part of the public climate debate showed him that climate change had a marketing issue, a topic his advertising exec dad knew a bit about. While many agencies have worked on one-off PSA campaigns, the elder Marshall is bullish on what they can do together.
“Climate change is a uniquely large and complex problem, and as such needs uniquely new approaches. It is also big enough to accommodate multiple players,” says Marshall. “As the saying goes, two minds are better than one. In our case, we have the best talent from 17 different agencies bringing their unique skills and processes to get to better creative outcomes.”
The commencement speech takeover campaign was the product of three different agencies. The original idea came from Droga5 creatives Karen Short and Casey Rand at Droga5. Then Gerry Graf and his Barton F. Graf team picked it up when Short and Rand were out on leave, and built the brand idea and strategy around it. Digitas turned it into a social platform, then the Droga5 team came back in to play a creative leadership role. “Everyone sees everyone’s work, everyone challenges everyone’s work, and everyone improves everyone’s work,” says Marshall.
Climate change-awareness campaigns are a dime a dozen, but Marshall says the core premise of Potential Energy is that the old narratives of anti-capitalism haven’t worked: We need answers which aren’t based on guilt and cutting back individually, but rather in stoking the business and innovation potential in finding a solution.
“Anyone lucky enough to see Dan (Schrag) present on the issue quickly learns that the way to solve climate change isn’t through sacrifice as much as it is through innovation,” says Marshall. “The entire global energy system of the world needs to change, and quickly. And that is as much an opportunity for our clients as it is a threat. It’s the biggest capitalist opportunity the world has ever seen.”