Keeping The Faith

What has happened down here is the wind have changed/Clouds roll in from the north and it started to rain/Rained real hard and rained for a real long time/Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline.” —”Louisiana 1927,” words and music by Randy Newman

Given recent history, you’d think we’d all be more readily able to process massive change that comes in the blink of an eye, right? Not a chance. Not for this former New Yorker who decamped to New Orleans to be its unofficial Man About Town a year ago. And not for anyone else.

Ten days ago, I was surrounded by 600 of my fellow Louisiana businesspeople, artists and the like in the grand ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street for the Louisiana Cultural Economy Summit II. I hadn’t been in the hotel since the summer before, when the place was crawling with account planners from around the globe, most of whom I naturally thought had arrived primarily to visit me. (It turns out they were there for the 4A’s Account Planning Conference.) But unlike my involvement with the planners, I was strictly an observer at the event last month, albeit an involved one. Everyone else was a real Louisianan.

The gathering, following an initial confab last December, was part of a historic effort to ratchet up the economy through a new program centered on the state’s internationally renowned cultural treasures. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu’s opening speech that morning was far from humdrum. Nuh-uh. This was a man on a mission, and this topic was clearly mission No. 1. By the time he concluded his remarks, I was ready to stand on my chair and shout, “Hallelujah! Amen, brother!”

Less than a week later, Mitch’s sister, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, acknowledged on CNN that Mitch had spent the day after Hurricane Katrina roared into town personally assisting with search and rescue in the flooded streets and canals of New Orleans. So much for his pet cause. The lieutenant governor, like so many others, clearly has a new mission.

The friends and business associates with whom I’ve spent the lion’s share of my time in New Orleans have now, like me, scattered across the country. This near-carpetbagger is heading back to New York as we speak, at least for the interim. Others are staying closer to home. Robbie Vitrano of Trumpet Advertising was the first person to lure me back to New Orleans and had taken me to the summit to see his friend Mitch speak. Now he and his partners and employees are opening satellite offices as quickly as they can to keep the agency moving forward. Matt Konigsmark, the former director of marketing for the city, has taken his family to Atlanta, where he is no doubt working now on ways to maintain the recent success he shared as part of the team that kept New Orleans off the Department of Defense’s base-closing list. A few people, like Peter A. Mayer Advertising’s Butler Burdine, who was busy shuttling neighbors to safety in Mississippi last week, may not have gotten around to thinking about their next steps.

Will they all be back there? Are you kidding me? Not only will they be back, they will probably be on the most critical teams charged with rebuilding the bridges for everyone else.

You see, one thing I learned during the last year or so in New Orleans is that the ad people there don’t simply do “pro bono” work on occasion to shore up community goodwill or to exercise some creative muscles. They are a critical component in some of the most important cultural, city and state initiatives going on. And far from what anyone could consider civic projects, such efforts are also a vital part of their own revenue.

While I was working with Robbie and his team on their winning bid for the state’s economic development campaign, for example, they were also polishing up new work for the state’s parks program as well as their Tobacco-Free Living campaign. Across town, our pals at Peter A. Mayer retained the tourism account just as they launched a vivid new campaign for the beleaguered New Orleans Saints under the banner, “You gotta have faith.” Indeed.

Any Southern California agency worth its salt has a car account. But in a city and state where the cultural sector accounts for 144,000 jobs—more than 7 percent of the work force—and the tourism industry generates 126,000 more? This isn’t just civic pride. This is big business.

The last time I ventured down to the French Quarter, a few weeks ago, it was to squire a visiting New Yorker around town. Our first and primary stop was the new exhibit on the Battle of New Orleans at the Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street. We are both history buffs, so we had a field day watching the film about the battle’s highlights, marveling over the costumes (I mean uniforms) and pondering the battle plans, the nature of the weapons, etc. What struck me most were the almost dainty portrayals of the “fierce battle” in which General Andrew Jackson’s men and the invading British seemed to be participating—more of a choreographed dance than the kind of activities we now associate with warfare. Granted, casualties were high then, but not on par with what we’ve already learned in the wake of Katrina.

There is a new battle for New Orleans raging. As we pray for the victims, it’s imperative that we keep our own faith alive, no matter how much more distressing the news becomes.

The spirit of Louisiana has been challenged throughout history, but its people will rise to the occasion once again, as they have so many times before. We can all join their battle more explicitly one day soon. In the meantime, participate in your own agency’s related efforts, or find other ways to be a positive force, either through donating blood and/or requested supplies or through financial contributions that can be used throughout the affected region.

As those Peter A. Mayer ads for the Saints peel off the now-silenced (and possibly submerged) streetcars, we must not let the same happen to the belief we have in our peers and friends who remain there. No matter what further obstacles they face or what they immediately lack, the one thing that must not be in short supply is faith. Ours or theirs.