How did touring in a band prepare you for the world of advertising? In the late ’90s and the early 2000s, the music industry was the Wild Wild West. The dawn of DIY record making, streaming platforms and indie promoters took all the power away from the music industry elite. While the industry dinosaurs were waging copyright wars, the entire punk, indie and electronic music scenes were busy in their parents’ garages, writing records, recording them for free, uploading them to MP3.com or Kazaa, and booking DIY tours with a legion of indie promoters across the country using sites like BYOFL.org. This revolution in music rewarded the driven. If you put in the work—not just the art, but also the business of music—you could achieve a tremendous amount of success underground. I learned about photoshoots, music videos, licensing, tour contracts, publishing deals, streaming optimization and, of course, using social media to get thousands of kids to show up to your concerts. All of my experience with building bands is no different from building brands.
What led you to cofound the integrated agency Ready Set Rocket? Back in 2006, I needed some cash between tours. Despite having a BS degree in marketing, I was working at Chipotle in my hometown, wrapping burritos for old high school friends. A former punk band singer had started a branding and digital studio in Orlando, Florida, called Hydra Studio. He offered me ten dollars an hour to go part-time as a copywriter. I eventually accepted and helped him build Hydra Studio into what it is today, Purple Rock Scissors. In the 2009 recession, I decided to split off, move to New York and take a chance at building my own shop with my partner, Alex Lirtsman, combining his e-commerce experience with my creative production experience. It was a long uphill climb, considering neither of us had New York City agency experience, or even useful contacts for that matter.
How have you used advertising to talk about mental health? I spotted a major hole in the mental health industry. To explain, I’ll compare it to finance. Brilliant financial experts create extremely complex financial services models, products and services, but they do not go out to the market directly to communicate the value of these offerings to potential clients. They hire ad agencies to understand the ins and outs of it all so the agencies can effectively distill a high-impact, memorable message in the marketplace.
So, in 2013, when I was starting to take a hard look at the mental health industry, I realized that there was effectively no one working with scientists, researchers, psychiatrists, psychologists and community workers to help them distill their message into relatable, culturally relevant communications. And that’s the exact point when I started to advocate for mental health awareness by taking the world of mental health science and repackaging it for consumers.
When and why did you decide to launch the mental health nonprofit Made of Millions Foundation? My entire life, I was convinced I was a psychopathic, homicidal, pedophilic maniac. From the age of eight, I started having severe anxiety, including panic attacks in response to unwanted intrusive thoughts. Every one of them was against my values. At my worst, I had thousands of violent images and thoughts flashing through my head in a single day. Every time I tried to push those thoughts away, they gained speed and intensity. In 2014, I almost took my life at South by Southwest, and it wasn’t the first time.
When I finally Googled “violent thoughts” at the age of 33, I learned about OCD and the pain of the condition, which has a major branding problem because no one in society understands what it is, and that it is truly unbearable for the sufferer. You are either constantly ideating suicide because you can’t handle the thought of spiraling, or because you want to protect the people around you by eliminating yourself as a threat. I also realized that there was a whole world out there. I had found my community. And I vowed to make sure that no thirteen-year-old ever would ever suffer from this condition for 20 years undiagnosed again.
What was your riskiest professional decision? Publishing graphic details of my mental health struggles in Fast Company in 2016 to launch Made of Millions. I was absolutely horrified to take the lid off the types of thoughts I had hidden from every person I knew throughout my entire life. No one knew what I thought. And now every client, prospect, vendor, employee and partner would see it online forever. But I was in a place of privilege, and also scorn for the government and the nonprofits that had failed me.
What sparked the idea for Made Academy, an online, on-demand mental health curriculum? In 2018, we launched a campaign called Dear Manager with about $500. Similar to consumer marketing, where consumers were demanding change from brands, we called on employees to demand change from employers. This circumvented the growing HR backlog of priorities and forced executives to take this conversation seriously. Over those next two years, we consulted with a lot of organizations and advocates, and that led us to Made Academy.
Made Academy does two critical things. First, it enables us to force mental health education upon a captive audience. Because society does not teach us anything about our brains in school or anywhere else, we decided to turn corporations into the distribution vehicle for this information. So, imagine you’re a cashier at Burger King in Des Moines, Iowa. With Made Academy, we can make sure that cashier gets the same education about mental health as the chief marketing officer of Burger King. It levels the playing field. Secondly, it allows us to run our non-profit like a for-profit, bringing a valuable in-demand product to the market to fund our mission.
What are some takeaways from the curriculum that would be helpful for creatives today? First, empathy. We all hear stats like one in four people will have a mental health condition in their lifetime. But seeing it and hearing it from industry leaders and advocates who look like you and sound like you is critical. We explore not only the pain and shame of stigma, but also how it’s compounded exponentially by intersectional factors like race, sexual orientation, age and beyond.
Second, psychoeducation, or the process of providing education and information to those seeking or receiving mental health services. For me, this is one of the most inspirational reasons to adopt the program. Because if I had learned what an intrusive thought was by watching a video at my first job, it would have saved me from self-medicating, self-harming and losing relationships. Made Academy gives a high-level grounding of the clusters of conditions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and how they show up.
Third, management. We are not, nor should we be, armchair psychiatrists in the workplace. But we should have a high-level understanding of critical topics like confidentiality, accommodations, communications training, mindfulness and slowing your nervous system.
What excites you about advertising right now? The continued decline of advertising in favor of social capitalism and purpose-driven content marketing. Basically, when a brand puts its money where its mouth is, and when it doesn’t see consumers as numbers to drive market share, but instead as an extension of its mission to forge a better future. I’m not fooling myself or anyone out of the fact that social capitalism is still capitalism, but it feels pretty damn good when you can wield your advertising power for something greater than filling landfills with half-used bullshit products that add no value to society.