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One Man’s Plan to Save the World through Advertising

He may be an ad man, but he’s no Don Draper.

Paul Polizzotto thinks a lot about advertising—how and why it works (or doesn’t), the ways we’re exposed to it, and what it means to us as a society. But the man is no Don Draper. He isn’t trying to figure out a clever way to sell you a new car or a home appliance. Instead, he wants to treat your compassion as a cultural commodity, turning a big chunk of the billions corporations spend on ads into a reliable financial backbone for more than 150 nonprofits around the world.

Polizzotto, a Southern California native and both president and founder of CBS EcoMedia, has always taken an altruistic approach to business, long before the term “conscious consumer” was in the zeitgeist. His first foray into public-private partnerships, a social enterprise called Property Prep, urged companies to find ways to alter their environmentally destructive practices without putting themselves out of business. After all, if sustainable practices are seen as being economically unsound, corporations will have no reason to pursue them.

His unusual methodology is likely an extension of a childhood spent surfing with friends in the Santa Monica Bay. As much as he and his friends loved the waves, they would literally get sick from spending too much time in water polluted by toxins from the contract cleaning industry. His current venture, EcoMedia—which he sold to CBS in 2009—remains influenced by those early encounters with big business tarnishing what he loved.

EcoMedia is rooted in a simple idea, taking advertising dollars from major corporations and redirecting them to nonprofit organizations tackling on a wide array of issues. “There’s all this talk about [big data],” says Polizzotto. “I think if we start to have data on what we care most deeply rather than what movie you watched this weekend it will impact the products we create and how we distribute them.”

Traditionally, most nonprofits rely on a small but loyal set of donors who are committed to their cause. Many of these organizations face two major challenges over the long term—expanding their base of financial donors and the reach of their message to people outside a sphere of receptive voices already committed to the cause. “I looked at the billions spent on advertising and wondered if there’s a model where we could fund nonprofits,” Polizzotto said. “An ad model to fund the most important social issues of our time.”

EcoMedia helps produce creative content that highlights the work of an organization. It’s an obvious win for the organizations themselves, as they are open to new sources of major funding. So, what’s in it for the corporate donors, other than a tax write-off? Ultimately, it’s a new form of marketing. “We [can] use the megaphone of CBS to support the remarkable work these nonprofits are doing,” he says.

In the age of social media, consumers are rapidly becoming more sophisticated with their dollars and the potential influence those financial resources carry. If a major brand or corporation can successfully link itself with a cause that’s important to consumers, they’ve created a bond that over time can be more powerful than any viral commercial or celebrity endorsement.

Of course, there are challenges to working in this space. First and foremost is authenticity. A corporation might provide funding for a new city park, but if they have a legacy of polluting the environment, consumers aren’t suddenly going to see them as an altruistic savior of the planet. For Polizzotto and EcoMedia, that means working closely with these companies to develop more than a simple financial transaction. Repeatedly describing himself as “results-driven,” Polizzotto describes the goal of EcoMedia as redirecting advertising dollars to measurable accomplishments, which can include everything from working on a nonprofit’s primary mission to changing the way a corporation physically ships its products.

Another challenge is making connections with people who care about a cause. And this is where EcoMedia is potentially pioneering another major trend, with its new initiative Viewers to Volunteers. By now, a number of media and nonprofit organizations have developed campaigns aimed at using the news to inspire activism or donations. It’s a nice idea, but Polizzotto says a majority of people who are already philosophically on board don’t necessarily have the financial resources to match their convictions. Or someone who does have the resources might be suffering from “donor fatigue,” having given too many times to organizations he or she doesn’t feel a strong connection to.

So, says Polizzotto, EcoMedia serves as a bridge between individuals and advertisers. “People are saying I can’t go anywhere without feeling like someone is asking me for money,” he said. “I’m concerned about that donor fatigue. We’re not asking consumers for money. We’re asking consumers if they care. That’s it.”

“In my view, the future is about less of where an advertiser reaches you and more about how they impact your life,” Paul Polizzotto, president and founder of EcoMedia tells me. Polizzotto describes this future as “permission based advertising.” In exchange for the 30 seconds of your time it takes to watch an ad, you offer feedback on what issues or causes you care about. The corporation then uses that feedback to direct financial resources on your behalf to a nonprofit relevant to you. In a very real sense, this kind of donation works on two tiers, beginning with the empathy of an individual and translating into financial resources from a corporate entity.

“I have no idea what device we’ll hold in 10 years. But what I do know is that media companies will be talking to viewers and that people will be talking to each other,” he said. “I’m interested in getting involved in those conversations so that something meaningful can come from it.”

That same company Polizzotto first founded to help clean up the beaches in Santa Monica is still going strong today. He says he’s proud to see a legacy of companies, consumers and governments coming together to create a lasting change that works for all parties. Now, he and his friends can surf in those same waters where their biggest fears are weather they can still catch a worthy wave rather than if they’ll end up with a respritory infections when they get home. It’s that kind of measurable change that continues to drive him today and one that he hopes will become a model for other companies who want to share a message that lasts beyond a 30-second commercial.

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