This Portland Agency Is Dotting the City With Tiny Billboards to Help Small Businesses

The pandemic has caused a major retail slump

Small billboards are popping up to support Portland small businesses. North

Portland’s protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd are approaching 70 consecutive days. Add to that the devastation of Covid-19 on the economy, and it’s understandable that local businesses in the city face seemingly insurmountable odds to recover.

Commerce in the downtown core has screeched to a halt mainly due to the ongoing pandemic. Heavy media coverage of the protest activities in the area has also added to the issue. The city circulated a plan to help revitalize downtown businesses, but judging by the response, some worry that the action is too slow or too late.

Agency North is hoping that tiny billboards, scattered around the city, can help raise awareness. The pro-bono campaign is part of PDXSOS (Save Our Shops), a program of Bricks Needs Mortar, a local hub encouraging people to support their favorite local businesses. Additionally, the program’s goal is to raise the profiles of Bipoc (Black, Indigenous, people of color) and women-owned businesses.

“It became immediately apparent to us that many of our local independent retailers were going to be struggling,” said Rebecca Armstrong, CEO of North. “We’re very connected to our community, and Portland’s character is largely defined by the different neighborhoods and small, unique, independent businesses that are in them. We realized that if this went on for a long time, there was a great risk of us losing much of that much of the economic engine that fuels Portland and the character of the city, so we felt we needed to do something.”

A little over a month ago, OOH company Billups donated a large digital space to kick off the PDXSOS campaign. The smaller billboards measure 12.5 inches high and 7 inches wide, with vinyl donated by a local printing company Irwin Hodson, which North began getting into the market a little over two weeks ago. The goal is to activate donors and volunteers to get hundreds of boards into the city. Armstrong talks with retailers on a weekly call to explain the program and offer signs.

Using tiny billboards is a tactic that’s been used by other brands before. According to Armstrong, the idea of using something quirky fits the Portland ethos.

“We take pride in things like having the smallest public park in America,” she said. “So it seemed native to the city and a different way to bring attention to a very important issue.”

Armstrong, who noted that her husband’s aunt’s clothing business suffered losses of $500,000 due to looting, said the campaign doesn’t have a set end date.

“This [crisis] isn’t going away anytime soon,” she said. “Portland has had a multiple-layered whammy, and it’s all impacting business.”


Client: Bricks Need Mortar
Co-Founder: Sarah Shaoul
Co-Founder: Jim Hassert

Agency: North
CEO: Rebecca Armstrong
Chief Creative Officer: Mark Ray
Creative Director: Ashod Simonian
Creative Worker: Justin “Scrappers” Morrison
Creative Worker: Anthony DeMarco
Copywriter: Laura Gibson
Print Producer: Peter Calandra
Video Producer: Bill Ballard
Media Director: Caroline Desmond & Nicole Bell

Cinematography: Charlie Balch
Editor: Sam Zimman
Music Director: Ashod Simonian
Music Producer: Laura Gibson
Audio: Chip Sloan

OOH Vinyl: donated by Irwin Hodson
Digital Billboards: donated by Billups
PDXSOS development: donated by Matter Supply Co.

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.