Ad of the Day: The Y Calls on Droga5 for the First National Ads in Its History

Campaign visits underserved communities where the Y's work is most crucial

Headshot of Tim Nudd

The Y shines a spotlight on America's forgotten communities, and how important the nonprofit's youth development work can be to their social fabric, in its first-ever national ad campaign, breaking today from Droga5. 

Two new 60-second spots have a cinematic feel yet are grounded in their approach as they explore the landscapes and characters of such communities, featuring actual residents—no actors—to achieve an authentic depiction. 

The spots, "Places" and "Idle Hands," tackle separate issues.

"Places" looks at underserved neighborhoods in America and how the the Y (which adopted its nickname, short for YMCA, as an official moniker during a 2010 rebrand) is there on the ground every day, offering safe spaces, mentorship, healthy meals, education and more.

"Idle Hands," meanwhile, offers snapshots of the young people in these neighborhoods, and how the Y helps them channel their energies into something safe and constructive instead of falling into bad habits.

The ads end with a new tagline, "For a better us," and a call for donations at the Check out both ads here: 

Donna M. Bembenek, vp of marketing communications for the Y, tells Adweek that the commercials might be considered gritty and not be what most people would expect from the Y, but that's by design.

"These are real issues, fears and conditions Americans face, which the Y works to mitigate on a daily basis," she says. "We hope that these ads create a national conversation that helps to educate the public and changes perceptions of the Y. We want the public to see the Y in a new way: a leading charity addressing pressing social issues in communities nationwide—a charity worthy of donations and support. This is who we've been for more than 160 years, and our new campaign is designed to help more people understand that."

"It was important to make the work real and not so sanitized," adds Droga5 executive creative director Kevin Brady. "This approach not only shows the true problems as they are but also cuts through the clutter on television and helps people feel the importance of these issues. You don't tend to give money when everything is perfect, you give it when there is a true, urgent need, and the Y is addressing those needs every day of the week."

Droga5 and Park Pictures director Seb Edwards shot the "Places" commercial entirely in West Baltimore and the "Idle Hands" spot mostly in Dundalk, Md., a suburb of Baltimore.

"A large part of the creative concept behind these spots is to recognize that mainstream media often does not focus on the positive aspects of communities similar to those shown in the ads," Brady says. "Both spots feature real people who live in and around the respective communities. Nobody is an actor. Most of the casting was done off the street—meeting people, getting to know them, meeting their friends, etc. 

"We did hours of interviews during the shoot to get a sense of how people felt about where they live, what they wished was better, and what they thought the solutions could be. It was important for us to maintain a high level of authenticity when portraying the communities in the spots. We didn't want to recreate these needs; we wanted to document them in a poetic way."

The opening of the "Places" spot is particularly evocative, as an aerial shot combines with a voiceover to communicate that some neighborhoods are all but invisible to the outside world—when in fact, as the spot later shows, they are vibrant and full of potential. 

"When we start with a shot from above, the audience hears the voiceover speak from the point of view of a resident from that community, saying, 'I'm here, can you see me? Because sometimes it feels like I'm invisible, that this whole place is invisible,' " says Brady.

"This on-the-ground narrative reminds the viewer that many similar communities are only known from afar and from the outside, like footage captured from a news helicopter. But the voiceover messaging goes on to remind the viewer that the people who live in these communities may be forgotten or misunderstood from the outside, but such communities are really full of optimism and potential, which is what the Y looks to strengthen and nurture every day."

Edwards had enormous passion for the project, Brady adds.

"He understood the issues and had a relentless desire to really get deep into these stories," Brady says. "He spent an incredible amount of time in West Baltimore and really got to know the kids and their issues and their community. And from a filmic standpoint, he really connected with the work and helped us tell the stories in a new and fresh way."

The tagline, "For a better us," is both functional and aspirational, Bembenek says.

"We really wanted a line that mostly communicated this higher calling of the Y—the part of the Y that really works to help address real problems in our country," she says. "But the additional utility of the line is that it also addresses each aspect of what the Y does. 'For a better us' can refer to a better community, a better country or even a better us on a more personal or healthy level. It was really multifaceted, positive and hopeful."


Client: The Y

President, Chief Executive Officer: Kevin Washington

Executive Vice President, Chief Strategy/Advancement Officer: Kate Coleman

Vice President, Marketing Communications: Donna Bembenek:

Senior Director External Relations: Ryu Mizuno

Campaign: "For a Better Us"

Titles: "Places"

"Idle Hands"

Launch Date: 1/25/2015

Agency: Droga5

Creative Chairman: David Droga

Chief Creative Officer: Ted Royer

Executive Creative Director: Kevin Brady

Creative Directors: Casey Rand, Karen Land Short

Copywriter: Lincoln Boehm

Chief Creation Officer: Sally-Ann Dale

Head of Broadcast Production: Ben Davies

Senior Producer: Jennifer McKenzie

Global Chief Strategy Officer: Jonny Bauer

Head of Strategy: Chet Gulland

Strategy Director: Elaine Purcell

Group Communications Strategy Director: Duncan Owen

Senior Data Strategist: Eric Raicovich

Group Account Director: Matt Ahumada

Account Director: Amanda Chandler

Account Manager: Sara Fletcher

Project Manager: Rayna Lucier

Production Company: Park Pictures

Director: Seb Edwards

Executive Producers: Mary Ann Marino, Jackie Kelman Bisbee

Producer: Martha English

Editing: Rock Paper Scissors

Editor: Ted Guard:

Assistant Editor: JK Carrington

Executive Producer: Eve Kornblum

Producer: Lisa Barnable

Postproduction: The Mill

Producer: Mile Pullan

Colorist: Fergus McCall

Flame Artist: Kieran Hanrahan:

Music: Minibal

Benjamin Balcom

Sound: Hear City

Audio Engineer: Keith Reynaud

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.