How One Agency’s Insight Into Millennials Helped It Win the White House as a Client

Mekanism's offer to get involved sparked the 'It's on Us' campaign

Headshot of Kristina Monllos

Sometimes asking the right question can land you at the White House. At least, that's what independent creative agency Mekanism learned earlier this year. 

On Friday in the Southeast wing of the White House, Mekanism president and CEO Jason Harris, along with creative director David Horowitz, head of strategy Eric Zuncic and other coworkers, watched as President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden introduced a new campaign created by the agency's New York office.

To a room filled with roughly 200 guests—including victims of sexual assault, activists, members of the press and celebrities like Olivia Munn, Cody Horn and Kevin Love—the first spot of the new "It's on Us" campaign premiered. Geared to raise awareness of campus sexual assault, the spot puts the impetus on everyone to stop sexual assault; it has already been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube. 

"As far as we’ve come, the fact is that from sports leagues to pop culture to politics, our society still does not sufficiently value women," said Obama at Friday's campaign launch. "We still don’t condemn sexual assault as loudly as we should. We make excuses. We look the other way. The message that sends can have a chilling effect…. It is on all of us to reject the quiet tolerance of sexual assault and to refuse to accept what’s unacceptable." 

So how did the 75-person shop get noticed by the White House? 

Well, the White House, along with PVBLIC Foundation and Generation Progress (the youth arm of the Center for American Progress), tapped the San Francisco-based agency for the campaign after Harris attended an event called Media for Social Impact at the United Nations this spring. Feeling charged following the event and looking to do something positive with the agency's talent, Harris told PVBLIC to keep them in mind should something come up. 

"Two days later we heard from PVBLIC that the White House and Generation Progress were looking to do a campaign to help prevent sexual assault on college campuses," said Harris. "A week later we were at the White House in a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss the issue." 

A pervasive problem with staggering statistics—one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted in college, and only 12 percent of rape survivors report the assault—compelled the agency to offer to work pro-bono. 

"When we raised our hands to get involved, they looked at our website and decided to move forward because of campaigns like Pepsi, Axe and Jim Beam that really targeted millennials," said Harris, who explained that there were no other agencies involved in the process. "Because sexual assault is such an issue on college campuses, they wanted an agency that could talk to younger audiences." 

In June the agency pitched five ideas, including a runner-up campaign called "Get in the Way," that was focused on intervention as opposed to being a bystander. 

"With 'It's on Us' we want to create a movement that everybody is responsible for sexual assault happening," says Harris. "We need to take ownership and fundamentally change the culture. Instead of just raising awareness, we [have] to develop activists. And so the whole idea behind 'It's on Us' is that we create the idea and slogan and the tools but then the campaign is turned over to everybody to participate." 

Two additional spots have already been shot and will run later this year. The campaign also has print and outdoor components as well as tool kits, digital widgets, apps and an online pledge that can be shared on social networks. Celebrities in the first spot, including Kerry Washington, Jon Hamm and Connie Britton, were chosen as strong male and female role models and for their broad appeal. 

On, people can take a pledge and share it with their social networks, share the TV ads, order a shirt and even film their own PSAs. "Dozens of partners like the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] and EA Sports and Viacom will use the 'It’s On Us' logo to promote the campaign across their properties," said Harris. "A movement isn’t about creating ads and having people passively watch. It’s about creating the tools so people take action." 

@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.