Agencies in Action Fights Hunger

NEW YORK Four years ago, Bill Oberlander, chief creative officer of Cossette Communications, was returning from a lavish seven-course meal designed as a “water tasting” for Acqua Panna, then his client at Ogilvy & Mather.

The exec saw a homeless family huddled over a New York City subway grate for warmth. They had been on that same grate four hours earlier when he’d set off for his chic lunch at Ducasse.

“I started thinking about this massive inconsistency between this seven-course meal and what’s going on right at my doorstep,” says Oberlander.
What began as a personal effort to convince his creative team to volunteer at a local soup kitchen has grown into a citywide effort to galvanize staffers at New York shops to help keep overwhelmed facilities for the homeless effectively staffed.

Oberlander now serves as director of Agencies in Action, a new nonprofit organization designed to encourage local ad agencies to get involved in addressing many of the city’s social problems.
Oberlander says he was inspired “to take it to the next level” after meeting Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, who is working with the group to coordinate project logistics.
“My definition of success is to help the hunger situation,” Oberlander explains of the nonprofit’s immediate goal. “Even six months ago, it didn’t seem as dire a situation. Now more than ever people should be helping others who are less fortunate.”
With support from Cossette, the agency Oberlander joined last fall from his position as ecd at McCann Erickson, Agencies in Action this week launched a wild posting campaign that turns famous ads into pleas for shops to get involved in the war against hunger.

Apple’s silhouettes of dancing iPod listeners morphs into an image of a panhandler with the headline “iHungry.” Nike’s airborne Michael Jordan logo trades its basketball for a plate, knife and fork — and the headline, “Just Feed Them.” In a nod to HSBC’s outdoor campaign that contrasts the same images with different text, a third poster shows three pictures of an empty plate with the words “hungry,” “malnourished” and “starving.”

All of the ads, which will include three new executions next week to help promote the organization’s launch event at Cossette on Thursday, end with the message, “Let’s put ad agencies to work for the hungry.” People are directed to sign up at

“We have to get them where they live,” says Oberlander. “This is their vernacular. Spoofing famous existing work is definitely one way to grab their attention.”

So far five agencies have joined Cossette in the effort: Arnold, DiMassimoGoldstein, Gotham, Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners and TBWA\Chiat\Day.

In joining, shops are asked to commit a team of six staffers to work three hours a month in local soup kitchens. “If we can get 20 agencies to commit, we can cover at least one soup kitchen in the city every weekday of the month,” Oberlander explains.

So far reaction to the campaign, which also has an online presence through social networking sites, has been positive, with more than 160 fans signed up on Facebook and 180 on LinkedIn, he says.

One unexpected development, Oberlander adds, is how many freelancers want to take part. “There is this groundswell for ‘Freelancers in Action,'” he says, adding that he’s even gotten calls from North of the border expressing interest. The potential for growth is palpable, but this year, he says, “I’ll be happy if we get 14 more agencies signed up.”