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How did you get started in advertising? We had just lost the 2004 presidential election—I had been working for John Kerry and the Florida Democratic Party. After spending several days recovering with my team at Epcot, I hopped around the Northeastern corridor for a few months visiting law schools. I was accepted at New York University School of Law, but while the accomplishment felt great, studying law didn’t feel right. I wanted to learn how to use stories and ideas to change hearts, minds and behaviors—not just policy.

I also have a nonprofit background, which involved creating experiential learning exercises to help high school students understand social issues related to power, identity and racism. Using games and real-world experiments, we brought young people from all different backgrounds together, thereby making their communities stronger and safer. America would be a different place if everyone experienced programs like Camp Anytown. So having started my career in the nonprofit and political sectors, I had no idea that the advertising industry existed. I thought companies made the ads to sell their own products. The advertising industry is a veiled one.

When I moved to New York to go to law school, I gave myself the summer to find a job in a creative field. I started Googling strings of keywords that seemed to fit the kinds of jobs I’d like: “jobs for ideas people,” “creative jobs for people who are not artists,” “NYC company ideas hiring.” It was hilarious and depressing. Our culture doesn’t focus enough on self-knowledge. Looking back, I see how my empathy, interest in performance and visual arts, study of sociology, and passion for studying media—all of it—brought me to my path in commercial creativity, but at the time, I didn’t even have the words to search for a new career path or talk about the things I loved to do.

Luckily enough, I had two close friends—Ibby Nasmyth and Joy Allen—who both worked in advertising, at J. Walter Thompson (JWT) and Publicis respectively. Ibby had just finished a rotational program at JWT and referred me to a friend in human resources, who I spoke to about my passion for experiential learning. It just so happened that her office was located next to Cunning Communications, an agency that specialized in creating marketing programs at the intersection of experience design, technology and public relations. I thought, “This is a worthwhile alternative to law school.” Working at Cunning, I discovered planning and strategy. Meanwhile, Piers Fawkes had just started media company PSFK.com. Naked Communications was down the street. Anomaly and AKQA were around the corner. I feel very fortunate to have started my career in the midst of this cluster of agencies and new creative platforms that were popping up around 2006.
Community building is a dialogue, not an ad.

Why is creative culture important for brands today? Brands no longer compete within an isolated/singular category. Brands and agencies have to grab attention in a world where they compete for time with comedians and moms in Chewbacca masks. Thankfully, this forces brands to be more interesting, helpful, supportive and entertaining. Understanding creative culture is a business imperative today.

For example, for the One Million Square Feet of Culture campaign with Microsoft, we reached out to creative groups from very different cultural segments. Anthropologist Grant McCracken coined our outreach the “alien approach” because we made contact with diverse groups outside of Microsoft’s home industry of technology. Although Microsoft was not a natural part of the arts and design scene in Miami, the film community at Sundance or the bounce culture of New Orleans, we made friends with prominent community leaders and asked them to share their cultures with us. We were curious and then generous, leveraging resources that only Microsoft had to help these communities of creators execute on their ideas and dreams. Brands and agencies shouldn’t pretend to know everything or feel pressured to say the right thing every time. Community building is a dialogue, not an ad.

Since starting out in advertising, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in how the industry approaches brand strategy? The biggest shift is from brand narcissism to brand holism. We used to spend a lot of time thinking about brand definition and solidifying a company’s purpose, meaning and intention. That work is still important, but culture has become more dynamic. More people are taking part in making images and content that shape our society, so brand strategy has shifted to be more comprehensive. Brands have to figure out how to contribute to a greater whole or risk irrelevance.

What was the thinking behind the #NoFOMO campaign for Target? Target had already started a conversation about body positivity for their spring swim campaign a year ago. We wanted to build on that conversation, but do more than just make a statement—we wanted to inspire action.

Someone on my team found a killer stat from a Fitness magazine survey: “36 percent of women would turn down Justin Timberlake if he invited them to a beach party because they don’t feel they’re in good enough shape.” It took a minute for the realization to hit me, but I’d done the same thing a million times. I thought, “Wow, what a shame. A lot of us opt out of fun, joy and friendship because of body insecurities. Why not create a campaign that exposes and challenges those feelings and behaviors, but with Target’s iconic optimism?”

Where does your best inspiration come from? I get inspired by other disciplines. I bring poetry into strategy. I am a huge anime nerd. I like to bring ideas from the worlds of startups, science fiction and kids just messing around on the Internet into my work. And sometimes inspiration for brands comes from personal experiences. I consider friends and acquaintances “lead users” and like thinking about how a brand can solve their problems, meet their unmet needs or entertain them in new ways. I get really inspired thinking about how to address the needs of those around me.

I truly appreciate the creativity shining from the margins. I am consistently in awe of people who are making magic while our system ignores them, marginalizes them or tragically ends their lives. To black folks, queer folks and lady folks who are inventing products of our culture, I salute you. I honor you. I love you. I live for you. I am committed to creating more justice and opportunities for you.

Do you have any advice for people just entering the field of advertising? A good friend of mine, Swiss entrepreneur Fabian Pfortmüller, says, “Life is about the people you meet and the things you make with them.” So meet really great people and make things with them. Not because you want to be famous or make money, but because you want to learn, connect and build something together.

Also, commit to being really good at your thing. Being trendy and talented will only get you so far. You have to match this with commitment and consistency.
Marissa Shrum is a group strategy director at Mother New York. Her remit includes brand, creative, content, influencer and cultural leadership strategy across Target’s apparel, home and beauty categories. Shrum has led strategic thinking for clients in technology and media verticals, including the likes of Google, NBC, Syfy and Microsoft. She brings her experience from the nonprofit and political sectors to her work, particularly her experience in youth community organizing. Her professional journey includes work for the John Kerry and Barack Obama campaigns, naming Verizon’s corporate responsibility platform and rebranding Reading Is Fundamental. Shrum holds an undergraduate degree in sociology and literature and has received fellowships from the Harvard Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy, the StartingBloc Fellowship for Change Leaders, and Vanderbilt University’s Ingram Scholarship Program. She has held volunteer advisory positions at Vanderbilt University, national apprenticeship startup Enstitute and the National Conference for Community and Justice. Her mother, Dorothy, is a local business leader and community activist who also loves to cut a rug. Similarly, Shrum spends a lot of time watching choreography videos on YouTube and would like to spend more time thinking about how creativity can close income, education and privilege gaps in America. She works in marketing because she believes creativity can heal the world and make it a better place—for you, for her and for the entire human race.

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