There aren’t many ad agency founders who can say they’ve spent three months at NASA HQ, founded multiple companies which produce everything from family bonding games to protective clothing, and worked with human rights activists (and Robert Downey Jr.) to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges… while also working with the Silicon Valley tech set as part of their ‘day job’.
But then Andrew Kessler is not your average ad man. He’s a mix of entrepreneur, mathematician (he has a degree in math from Berkeley), creative thinker and social justice campaigner, who spends a lot of time ruminating about how to solve intractable problems in both the private and public sectors.
One particular puzzle that Kessler knows how to solve is the best way to communicate the value of ideas and actions: “Without a shared lexicon, or an easy way to talk about something, it’s hard to express an idea, and even harder to communicate the value of that idea”. He believes that if businesses, and even non-commercial entities, communicate their stories in ways that people actually understand and relate to, audiences become activists.
It was with this goal that he co-founded Article Group four years ago. Headquartered in Brooklyn and part marketing agency, part ideas factory and part stable of thought gurus, his team has one relatively simple goal: to build useful ideas that actually work.
The aim is to solve “hair-on-fire marketing and communications problems”. Some of the problems are quirkier than others. A recent one was what to do with all the byproduct left behind after brewing beer. (Spoiler alert: you make a breakfast cereal out of recycled beer grains Beernola). Or a way to protect yourself from people coughing in your face on the subway? (Solution: Make a germ-protective scarf Scough).
Less idiosyncratic is Article Group’s work with Amazon Web Services (Amazon’s cloud computing business). They hired the agency in 2015 to help them communicate the power and opportunity of AWS to Fortune 1000 CIOs and skeptical CTOs, and they’ve worked hand-in-glove with Amazon’s executives to craft the messaging for AWS Re:Invent. This has helped the brand grow from less than $1bn in 2011 to over $25bn today.
Article Group’s knack for being in the right place at the right time to help solve a unique problem is usually the result of Kessler’s incredibly dogged work ethic, and his insatiable interest in tackling difficult business problems. It’s led to the agency being messaging architects for some of the world’s biggest tech companies. Kessler thinks his team works best when there’s a challenge that can’t be solved – or that clients don’t want to solve in a traditional way.
He says he learnt a great deal about problem solving after he was tipped off about a need at NASA in 2008. They were looking for a ‘veritable unicorn’ – a marketing/science/journalism expert who could help them generate renewed interest in the space program after the novelty of space travel had all but worn off.
Kessler spent an enormous amount of his own resources travelling back and forth to the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona, where the space agency was attempting to locate evidence of water on Mars, and he did everything he could to convince them to let him stay. Eventually, they agreed, and he ‘camped out’ inside mission control for three months – the first outsider ever granted such unfettered access.
His mission was to help NASA craft its story in a new way. Rocket launches had become routine, and NASA needed to recapture the magic and draw in new space fans from younger generations.
He made a documentary about them for the Discovery Channel which “focused more on the fascinating characters driving the science rather than the kind of hard-to-connect-with mission details”. He also wrote about his stint at NASA in the bestselling 2014 book entitled Martian Summer: My Ninety Days with Interplanetary Pioneers, Temperamental Robots and NASA’s Phoenix Mars Mission.
But the book begat yet another problem: How would he garner attention for it?
It was right about the time that the bookstore chain Borders was closing, and he decided to build a pop-up, interactive store to sell the book. His cheeky marketing ruse? It would only sell one book – his. He wasn’t sure the gimmick would work, so he didn’t even have a cash register there on the day the bookstore opened. But brimful of optimism and enthusiasm, he stocked the shelves with two thousand books, and sold a large number of the 2000 copies by the time he dismantled the store.
He even went on a book tour, an experience that he says left him feeling like “Charlie Big Potatoes” on a night when three hundred people clamored for his autograph, and like “a C-list wannabe” when only one person showed up.
But Kessler was anything but a wannabe. Nor was he only interested in making money for commercial concerns. Last year, he started a nonprofit called ArticleGroup.org, which specializes in solving humanitarian and ecological issues.
“The idea is to bring all sorts of people who are good at creative problem solving together to work on issues in human rights and the environment. Folks in advertising, marketing, design, and consulting have a variety of toolkits and methodologies that I think can help inform our approach. The ultimate goal is to help community leaders who focus on these big problems have outsized impact”, he said.
ArticleGroup.org brings together makers, thinkers and doers from creative and strategic fields to help organizations have a stronger impact.
One of their most recent projects is with Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Patima Tungpuchayakul, a Thai human rights activist who works to combat modern-day slavery in the Thai fishing industry. The non-profit partners with her organization on everything from messaging to capacity-building, governance, digital presence and fundraising.
Article Group has also just partnered with Robert Downey Jr. on a new project (and part of his ongoing transition into a real life Tony Stark) called Footprint Coalition. Still in its infancy, it’s billed as an earth-saving initiative which will use advanced technology to help remediate climate change.
Kessler firmly believes that the way to really engage people in solutions like climate change is to tell a story, and that If you want people to be galvanized by the story, you need not only to tell it well/deliver a great idea, but also help your audience understand it.
Whether he tackles a private or public sector problem next, and whether it’s on Mars or here on planet earth, Kessler remains committed to building useful ideas that actually work.