6 Questions for Alex Bogusky: Advertising and Social Causes

08/30/2011 04:51 pm ET | Updated Oct 30, 2011

There's nothing that captures the imagination like a man who disappears.

Alex Bogusky was one of the stars of the advertising world -- the force behind the Truth Campaign, a partner at Crispin Porter Bogusky by 34, and AdWeek's creative director of the decade for the 2000s -- until he dropped out of advertising last year.

Well, "dropped out" is an odd term for someone who launched a blog and live Web talk show, FearLess Revolution. And Alex has kept his toes in advertising, with a new series of advertisements for Al Gore's Climate Reality Project.

But for the most part Alex has left advertising to, as he puts it, "pursue big answers." The most visible sign of that came when he and a few friends founded COMMON, a social venture incubator that's a little hard to explain -- but sounds like a lot of fun. I asked Alex why he and so many other people like him are throwing themselves into social causes, and why he launched COMMON. The answer is maybe the ultimate creative goal: to go directly from thinking to doing.

2011-08-30-Alex_Bogusky_bw.jpgJeff Sweat: It seems like there are a lot of people from the advertising world spending more energy on social causes. Is this actually a trend?

Alex Bogusky: I think it's probably a trend. As a culture, this is probably the first time where we've really noticed that we're bumping up against the edge of our ecosystem, and we have a lot of really good data that explains to us pretty directly that we can't continue the same process and have it work out. That notion that we can't go forward in the same way I don't think is exclusive to any one industry. But there are a lot of artists in marketing, and a lot of people who are sensitive to changes in culture. In some ways you might see marketing reacting faster than some other industries would.

JS: Why are people from the advertising and marketing world joining social causes?

AB: In marketing you are what your clients do, right? Marketing is the tail and the tail can try to wag the dog, and in some ways it can influence what's happening. But I think a lot of marketing people are really frustrated by how slow the change has been, some are leaving, and some are coming up with side projects and looking for ways to participate in the change that they can feel is coming. They may feel like well, marketing might not be the best place to be, but the action's gonna be more on the company side.

JS: So it's actually going into social causes to see if they can make changes for themselves as opposed to, I guess, simply doing what the client needs?

AB: I mean, it depends on how you define a social cause. But, yeah, if you see that happening with marketers, they're trying to steer as well as react, so they're moving outside of their typical interactions, which would be with paid clients and they're embracing social causes and looking for social causes that they .

JS: Why did you guys launch COMMON? What was the personal need you were trying to fill, and the world at large?

AB: The genesis was that we had started working on a thing called Fearless Cottage, and Fearless is mostly media -- it's a blog and a web show that we do. I mean, in a lot of ways we were just trying to have a space to tell the truth as we saw it. But it got people really excited and they wanted to participate, and we didn't have a good way to participate within Fearless.

COMMON was, in part, designed to answer some of the issues that we think we talk about with Fearless but also to do it in such a way that all that energy and all that pent-up desire for participation could find a place. It's a social venture launch pad connected to this notion of a collaborative brand that is designed to be steered by a very active and involved community.

JS: How does COMMON work in practice?

AB: Well, yeah, I think we're still working it out. The problem with doing something like this is we don't have any models to look at, right?

JS: Right.

AB: So we can't look around and say, "Well, they did a collaborative brand like this." We were sort of surprised to find that there wasn't a collaborative brand that existed, an idea of a large brand that under the right conditions you could participate in. Brands were built around this notion of trademark, and trademark really only has one suggestion to people, which is don't touch this thing or we'll sue you, and that's not very collaborative.

So we created a brand designed to represent lots of social ventures across lots of different verticals. In the same way that Virgin, contrary to most brands, doesn't represent a vertical space like an airline. It actually represents a set of values and values around fun and attitude generally, and so they can apply those across 300 different companies.

Common's the same thing except the values would be applied to companies that are working in the social spaces or social entrepreneurs, like a Tom's Shoes and things like that.

There's a couple different aspects to the brand. One is the community, which is an online community, and then there are events, like a three-day one in Alabama where we launched a Bamboo Bike Company.

JS: What's been the reaction to COMMON, and do you get a sense of how well it's working at this point?

AB: I think the reaction is kind of an even combination of a lot of excitement and confusion. The confusion, I think, comes from the fact that this idea hasn't existed before, so it takes awhile for people to kind of understand what we're doing. But there's really been a lot of excitement and people who want to help with it, so that's just been really fun for us.

[With the bamboo bike event] when we were there and people got to work on the things that bother them and not just talk about them -- that was really powerful. I turned to my wife and I said, "I just want to do this with my life. Can we just do this over and over?"

JS: Are you out of advertising? And if you are, do you ever have any plans to go back?

AB: You know, it's crazy to say what you're never gonna do. I don't. Here at the Fearless Cottage, we spend about half our time working on Al Gore's Climate Reality Project, and so we're launching some stuff around that pretty soon, and we're really excited about that. That's the kind of work that matches our values and matches what we want to do. It's our kind of advertising.

For more from Jeff, visit the Yahoo! Advertising Blog or follow @YahooAdBuzz.