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Everyone at this new advertising agency has served time in prison

ConCreates is a creative agency staffed entirely by those who have been—or are currently—incarcerated.

Everyone at this new advertising agency has served time in prison

Vincent Bragg served five years, one month, and 22 days in federal prison on drug charges. In that time, he studied corporate and real estate law and read more than 400 books.

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He also started a creative ad agency.

Today, though, marks the official launch of ConCreates, a creative shop staffed entirely by men and women who have been, or are currently, incarcerated, with an overall goal to challenge the stigma society so often applies to people with criminal histories. The agency operates on a crowdsourcing model, tapping into a network of 436 men and women currently behind bars, and 319 former prisoners on the outside, for skills depending on the work needed.

“We built a creative network based on certain individual skill sets,” says Bragg. “Where most might see a bank robber, we see a strategist.”

“Our mission is to challenge the stigma of how society views people with a criminal history, as well as how people with a criminal history view themselves,” says Bragg, who cofounded ConCreates with Janeya Griffin. “If we’re able to show them they’re not just a bank robber, or not just a drug dealer, that they have creative potential, then we can show them an opportunity to take a new career path.”

According to a 2018 report from Prison Policy, the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is more than 27%.

“We want to help rehumanize them,” says Griffin. “When you go into prison, you’re dehumanized. Rehumanization comes from them using their skills in a positive way.”

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The original idea for ConCreates came to Bragg while serving time. While in prison, ConCreates contributor Joe Nickson consulted with MeUndies cofounder Jonathan Shokrian on a few campaigns. “We were able to give that founder some ideas that took his company from doing $50,000 in sales a month to $934,000 with only two campaigns,” says Bragg. “That was the birth of ConCreates.”

When he was released from prison on March 1, 2016, Bragg enlisted in the entrepreneurship program at Defy Ventures, an organization that works to help steer currently and formerly incarcerated men, women, and youth toward the creation of legal business ventures and careers. Through that program, he met Tim Jones, executive strategy director at 72andSunny New York, an agency that works with such brands as Smirnoff, Samsung, Facebook, Seventh Generation, and more.

What really impressed Jones was how ConCreates wasn’t just about helping former inmates successfully reintegrate with society but taking it a step further and actually using the skills that may have landed them in prison and aiming them at a different outcome. “That was the real light bulb for me,” says Jones. “That criminality is often just creativity without opportunity. We don’t think one mistake should define a human lifetime. We think there is this raw creative force that resides in prison today. How do we help that become a positive force for society and for those locked up?”

Jones and 72andSunny have teamed with ConCreates to help Bragg and Griffin set up the new agency, with such focus areas as brand identity, business operations, and promotional film production. In return, Jones says they just hope to be able to consult with ConCreates on future projects. The new agency is looking to work directly with clients and other partners including creative agencies, PR and research firms, and production companies.

“Our mission is to expand and diversify the creative class, and I don’t think anyone’s doing it in as much of a radical way as ConCreates,” says Jones. “At some point, we’ll work with them on certain client projects, but we’re not their exclusive partner. We’re excited for them to launch and hopefully start partnering with lots of brands and agencies.”

To be clear, none of this is part of the long-common practice of using cheap prison labor. According to the Department of Justice program Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR), there are 17,000 inmates at federal prisons working at more than 50 government factories, farms, and call centers across the country. Prison Policy reports that wages range from 23 cents to $1.15 an hour.

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ConCreates has set up an ad industry standard crowdsourcing renumeration model, where people are paid for every idea they contribute to the network and increasingly more as that idea progresses. Bragg says 10% of the company is owned by the network. “We have profit-sharing, so there is a sense of pride in ownership,” he says.

The best phone calls Bragg has are with prisoners who have seen an avenue for their talents beyond crime. “Some of them think this is all they can ever do, and it’s all they know,” says Bragg. “It’s really powerful to give these individuals the idea that their skills are useful.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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