After several years of a successful early career in advertising, I began to question what the hell I was actually doing.
The longer I lived in cities, the more I wanted to do work that helped improve lives for the people who lived in them, not plan elaborate billboard campaigns that dressed up their streetscapes. So after exploring a few options, I finally took a leap – to leave the private sector, forever, to work on urban issues. I completed a master’s degree in Public Affairs at the Humphrey School, because I am interested in helping cities make progress on the perennial social issues of affordable housing, homelessness, sustainability, and economic development. All the things.
After graduating, I struggled with my next move. The experience conundrum that many young graduates are faced with is also relevant when changing careers. There are few pathways for mid-career workers to move into nonprofits or government, because you lack the specialty experience that, for now, is required. I had freelanced at Zeus Jones a bit during school, and, when they offered me a full-time position as a Strategist, I couldn’t say no. Dream jobs are overrated, right? I reluctantly took the opportunity in front of me and decided to stay connected to urban issues through nonprofit board leadership work.
Fast forward to now: I just celebrated my three-year anniversary at Zeus Jones. Along the way, two surprising things have happened:
- Most broadly, the silos I thought I had to choose between are no longer relevant. Because of the digitalization of so many aspects of our world, the gap between for profit, nonprofit, and government work is shrinking. There are so many opportunities to partner across organizations to strengthen how cities serve the people who live in them. And frankly, our community needs more of this cross-sector collaboration.
- And personally, whereas I used to feel like I was the oddball agency person who cared about these issues, now I am surrounded by co-workers who want to make a difference, too. We go nuts for projects that also do good for the world, and try to hold all our projects to this standard.
I fully understood this potential when I was sitting on the floor of a Vancouver conference room surrounded by all my co-workers last spring. We were there to talk about what the future of our work looks like. And we didn’t pick Vancouver because it’s a hotbed of modern brands! We picked it because it’s a vibrant city that has transformed itself, because it’s a city that’s transparent about its struggles, and because it’s a city that has ambitious goals for its future. So here were 50 colleagues gathered on the floor to have a conversation with Vancouver business and government leaders about Vancouver – to learn about the city’s journey to where it is today, what good decisions the city has made, what’s holding it back, and how it fosters a community spirit.
We talked about the community’s divisiveness over bike lanes, the city’s ambitious environmental plan, the thriving startup community (and the ambitious partnership to offer residency that underpins its success), and the growing affordable housing and homelessness problem. Sitting at this intersection of urban planning, economic/community development, and the future of Zeus Jones, I was overcome with emotion – with the hope that perhaps marketing could be the place to make a difference after all.
Inspired by our experience in Vancouver, we have been doing more and more projects that sit at the intersection of public and private agendas. These projects deliver things like organizational strategy, service/experience design, visual design, and creative platforms to our clients. Here are a few examples of that work from the past year:
We partnered with the local startup community to re-envision how to brand the region’s problem-solving potential and co-developed a platform called Forge North to harness our collective capital.
We researched six change drivers that will affect our world over the next decade, then led a health care organization through a series of work sessions to discuss the impact these changes could have on health and how health care should respond – resulting in a 10-year strategic framework.
We developed a compelling training program for General Mills that helped employees understand how their daily decisions could help attain an absolute reduction in the company’s greenhouse gas emissions. We helped St. Stephen’s Human Services identify how they can connect with a wider base of volunteers and donors in the community by creating an outreach plan rooted in shared values.
Ten years ago, I was constraining the potential reach of my work by thinking of it in a traditional way. Now I see more connections every year between the work we do at Zeus Jones and the kind of work that urban progress needs. I am grateful to be at a company that continuously seeks to understand where the world is going, supports its employees’ passions, and cares about making real change in the world. Maybe it’s my dream job after all.