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September 13, 2006
Necessary New Orleanians

It's all about the work.


Too often the roar of paper tigers in our business. And still we cling to it as our best, last shot at accomplishing something that matters.

In September of 2005 the work mattered; as we watched our city drown and unravel, it was about the only thing tethering us to normalcy.


It was one of those times when you make promises to yourself. The steely, clenched-teeth kind. The kind you mumble out behind a thousand-yard stare. It's your Scarlett O'Hara moment — "With God as my witness I'll never...."


Most of us had found our way to Atlanta where Frank Compton and Louis Sawyer of Blattner Brunner took us in, no questions asked. A few squirreled up with clients in L.A. and New York. Five ended up sleeping head to foot in a grungy college apartment in Baton Rouge working out of a closet in our client's office. Although we didn't know it at the time, half of our staff's houses took water, about half of those lost everything.


We didn't really know much about the condition of our homes, what was happening in the city or when we could return home. But after accounting for everyone and cobbling together files, servers and a borrowed computer network, we still had clients and deadlines. In a cathartic way, it became all about the work.


So right there we pointed to the outfield and called our shot. My new word was urgency. We were going to work our vision like people possessed. We were going to become the poster child for the next New Orleans in terms of the work we would create for organizations driving the recovery and the company we would build.


For the last few years we'd been successful in picking up business — mostly challenger brands — outside of New Orleans. Like Martin, Fallon, W+K and Crispin, we knew that we had to extend our geography. But now, it was clear that the best challenger branding opportunities in the world were going to be found right in our backyard. It was the work of a lifetime, the role natives who embraced the ambition of world-class were born to play. And right now, it really had to be all about the work.


The unspeakable human suffering and the incompetence during the storm brought with it an uncommon introspection for New Orleans. After "The Thing," our mostly conservative NOLA had developed an appetite for challenger branding. The poverty and legacy of political apathy could no longer be hidden by the shiny good time glow of our rich culture. The emperor had no clothes. It was time to slaughter sacred cows, grab a pitchfork and torch then find out what was left in the best of New Orleanians.


We were in our element. We loved the city, but could never look past her shortcomings. Never past her possibilities, always challenging. We lived in a perpetual state of "divine discontent" before the storm.


Trumpet has always drawn from the inspiration of the city's culture, what homeboy Wynton Marsalis calls our birthright of Creative Intelligence. And we have said to anyone who'd listen that our city could build its future on its own terms by recognizing, elevating, aligning and optimizing its cultural resources. If there is any truth to our industry's sermons on differentiation, the economic power of creativity, and potential of cultural influence, we were sitting on Fort Knox. Five years ago, Trumpet had incubated the city's center for entrepreneurship out of frustration with the old, institutionalized business support groups like the Chamber of Commerce. Now, as every aspect of our city was being rethought, as we faced the reality that the next New Orleans could not be like the old one, it was time to test our fidelity, a concept defined by Umberto Eco as “how faithful you are to your beliefs?”


Here we were, pissed off, with hair-trigger emotions from battling contractors, permitting offices, thin public services and uneven everything - dumping it all into the work. Post-Katrina we were asked to bring contemporary branding to economic development, tourism, education, public safety, public health, healthcare and even working with architects, urban planners and community activists on neighborhood planning. It was an opportunity to fast forward the redefinition of creativity and branding as an economic multiplier and a means of cultural influence. We resigned our largest account, a brain dead group on the West Coast, and still saw 30% growth along with almost a dozen people joining us — Bravehearts who didn’t want the revolution to start without them.


Today, Trumpet and our work is at the center of it all. And we unapologetically believe we can both elevate our city and elevate our work to an international stage.


We're currently recruiting some of the most remarkable and talented people in America to New Orleans with a paraphrase of the ad used by explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton to field a crew for an Antarctic expedition:
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.


But a local writer and friend, Chris Rose, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his tortured, poetic and incendiary commentary on the hurricane did it one better:
"It's not another day in paradise, not by any means...But there's something about being here that makes you feel alive. I mean, if offered a chance to be one of those guys who raised the flag on Iwo Jima, you'd take it, wouldn't you? That's kind of what this is. A shot at glory."


The truth is, purpose is a powerful thing. A mission is bigger than a job. And as Tom Monahan told me a long time ago, "better problem, better solution." In the end, whatever we are to become — as a city, as people, as Trumpet — will be a matter of daily, incremental will. Of heart and courage. And the ability to see what is not obvious and visualize it into existence. And whatever happens, we will be responsible — by omission or commission. "There are no innocent bystanders" as my favorite barber, transplanted Dubliner Aiden Gill says.


It is an act of necessity because it happened on our watch and this issimply who we are, who we must be: Necessary creative beings, necessary New Orleanians.


And this is the work.

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Robbie Vitrano, Trumpet Advertising’s President/Director, Brand Design, returned to his native New Orleans to create the next great American agency. Along the way, he’s done some cool things, like helping to launch the first for-profit company to serve the needs of 53 million disabled Americans and founding an organization devoted to entrepreneurs to prove that creativity’s an economic multiplier. Today, he works on figuring out how authentic branding can help rebuild and reinvent New Orleans. robbie@trumpetadvertising.com

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