The TH Interview: Groundswell Founders Harris Davis and Jeff Cooper

Harris Davis (on the right) and Jeff Cooper (left) are the founders and co-creative directors of Groundswell, a brand-new NYC-based ad agency promoting socially and environmentally responsible brands and companies. Before starting Groundswell, both Harris and Jeff worked at several ad agencies in the NYC area; we recently caught up with both founders for a quick interview to see how their very own, TreeHugger-friendly company was doing.

CD: Groundswell is just starting up. How’s it going so far? What reactions have you had to your ideas to this point?

GS: It’s going well so far, but we’ve learned that starting a company like this without an existing client base is a tough proposition. And unfortunately, the perception among many potential clients is that partnering with an ad agency will be incredibly expensive. Originally, Groundswell was started simply to give us the freedom to pick and choose whom we wanted to work with —- companies we admired and whose products or services we believed in or used ourselves. We quickly realized, however, that we were primarily attracted to these businesses because they shared many of our own values, namely, social responsibility. We then began to consider the viability of building an ad agency around this principle. The fact that there are just a handful of these firms around the country signaled to us that it was not only possible, but that socially responsible companies might welcome the opportunity to work alongside an agency that shared their values. And the strangest part is that we never for a moment viewed similar agencies as the competition. Instead, we wanted to call them up to see how we could help each other.

What it really comes down to is that you shouldn’t have to shelve your morals when you walk out the door in the morning. We had come to a point in our careers where we wanted to work the same way we lived. We also realized that the only way to do something like this was to start from scratch. It’d be next to impossible for an existing agency to shift its focus to social responsibility without resigning accounts and consequently laying off employees. To have any credibility, social responsibility can’t just be a part of your business plan: it must be your business model.

CD: So whom do you hope to impact most directly? Is it the LOHAS crowd? Mainstream America? Somewhere in between?

GS: For the most part, the LOHAS market is already on board with the idea of social responsibility. But it’s imperative to keep introducing them to responsible products as they become available, because LOHAS consumers are more likely to be the early adopters and more likely to pay a 5-10% premium. As demand increases, prices will come down to a point where the products are more attractive to mainstream consumers. Then, of course, the products still have to deliver in terms of quality and effectiveness. Right now, for much of the market, the fact that a company is socially responsible is only added value.

So we hope to impact both groups, but more so mainstream America because they need the most convincing. This is a movement. And nothing would make us happier than to help bring it mainstream.

CD: What one environmental/sustainability quandary do you hope to most effectively tackle by helping to market companies who are doing really good things for the planet and us humble inhabitants?

GS: There are so many issues we’d like to see resolved, but if we had to pick one, it would be the energy crisis. Hybrid technology aside, solar and wind power seem to be the most viable, near-term alternatives to the fossil fuels we use today. And we’re already reading about wave farms (ED: Something we've covered right here in TH, as a matter of fact) and biofuels made from algae. Because there are no set rules, companies are able to be incredibly creative with their thinking. The more we are able to market these companies, the more exposure they’ll get and the more credibility they’ll gain with the masses.

CD: What excites and motivates you most about promoting sustainable companies? Is it the sense of well-being derived from doing good, honest work and being able to sleep better at night, or is it something else?

GS: There are a lot of things, really. Obviously, being able to sleep soundly at night is a lovely perk, but what we find most exciting is the opportunity we have to fundamentally change the way people behave. It’s not just about creating desire for a particular product or service; it’s about asking people to consider the consequences of their purchases as well.

Also, our industry has been reluctant to acknowledge that we are a large part of the problem. The vast majority of ad agencies look for one of two things: a client that can bring in revenue, or a client that can bring in creative awards. Everything else is secondary. There are certainly agencies that work with responsible brands, the problem is, these are the very same agencies that peddle junk food, gas-guzzling SUVs, and clothes made by workers earning slave wages. It’s not that the people doing the work explicitly support these things; it’s just that they don’t take the time to think about it.

So, as much as we're hoping to get consumers to consider the consequences of their purchases, we're also hoping to get our industry to reconsider the role it plays within society. Bill Bernbach, one of advertising’s most legendary figures, once said, "All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it to a higher level."

CD: How do you feel about part of this industry that looks for revenue and awards first? Can you justify the act of selling products, services and "stuff" to people? Generally, much of this "stuff" takes up space and uses resources and makes a bit of a mess somewhere along the line, which can’t all be negated by simply being socially and environmentally responsible. Is it okay to sell people more and more stuff?

Ah, yes, the conundrum of running a socially responsible business that, in effect, promotes consumption. This is a great question, and something we ask ourselves everyday. For the record, we don’t believe that social responsibility and consumption are mutually exclusive. The problem arises when that consumption becomes reckless, and right now in the United States, it is extremely reckless. According to the Worldwatch Institute, the US has roughly 5% of the world’s population yet we use 25% of the world’s fossil fuel resources, we consume more calories and more water than any other nation, we own larger homes and more television sets, we drive about 25% of the world’s automobiles, we use roughly 30% of the world’s paper and we create 51% more waste per capita than any other country.

In a perfect world, everything we produce and consume would be reusable or renewable. Obviously, we’re not there yet, but starting a dialogue on the importance of sustainability is a step in the right direction. In our minds, it’s not about selling more stuff — it’s about selling the right stuff. ::Groundswell

Tags: TH Interview

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