Real Leaders

Rescue Agency: Reimagining Advertising

Here’s how I’m defying a profit-obsessed industry to tackle the nation’s most important health topics.

By Kristin Carroll

As a teen, my bedroom walls were lined with Nike ads:

“Too often we are scared. Scared of what we might not be able to do. Scared of what  people might think if we tried.” “Just do it,” they declared, offering inspiration and encouragement. The ads sparked my lifelong passion for advertising. 

My journey took me not only deep into the inner workings of the marketing and advertising industry but also into the heartbeat of corporations themselves. My college honors thesis, Nike: The Role of Advertising in Global Corporate Responsibility, explored ads championing girls by proclaiming, “If you let me play … I will have more self-confidence, [and] I will be less likely to get pregnant before I want to.” At the same time, headlines exposed the outsourcing of labor to sweatshops that hired children overseas.

Working at a top-tier New York City ad agency on a coveted car account, I saw how creative egos were satiated with big ad budgets. And working at a tech startup, I experienced the thrill of going public on the New York Stock Exchange only to be sold to private equity, which would “operationalize the business,” translating our vision into no more than a payment processing platform. 

These were normal business practices. Yet, I couldn’t ignore the dichotomy between the vision and the forced reality of making short-term, exclusively profit-driven decisions. In each case, increasing value for shareholders — the very raison d’être of a company — came at the expense of employees, customers, and the communities in which we live. 

I wondered if there was a different way.

A Positive Pivot

That brought me to Rescue Agency, a full-service marketing agency that focuses exclusively on creating health-behavior-change marketing campaigns. I joined over a decade ago when Rescue was a 30-person organization that had successfully launched a few state-focused tobacco control campaigns testing approaches to make smoking less desirable, despite decades of image-focused advertising. Today, we’re home to over 275 people with $100 million in billings.

Soon after I joined, we began campaign implementation for the Food and Drug Administration to develop the very first national tobacco prevention campaigns for multicultural teens and LGBTQ+ young adults. These campaigns (in the years that preceded electronic cigarette company JUUL) did something no other health campaign had done before: We specifically communicated to the highest-risk and highest-use subcultures and created environments that made it more normal not to smoke. We were the first health campaign to spend more on digital, social, and experiential media than traditional advertising and the first to target smaller audiences. In late 2017, after two-and-a-half years of our campaigns (in conjunction with other efforts), smoking among high-risk teens was at its lowest levels ever recorded. We were using cutting-edge advertising tactics to change social norms and behaviors.

Expanding the Fight

Every day at Rescue, we harness the power of marketing and communications to help people live healthier lives. We’ve since applied our behavior change models and messaging frameworks to the most important health topics facing our nation today, from substance use prevention to mental health treatment promotion, from early childhood education to nutrition assistance, and much more. 

Over time, we’ve been able to measure the impact of these campaigns. Our work with the nation’s largest tobacco cessation service providers led to triple-digit increases in adult quitline enrollments. 81% of teens who saw our Behind the Haze vaping prevention campaign (currently running in 17 states) reported an intention to quit. We’ve urgently educated young people about the fentanyl crisis and accidental overdose risks and helped thousands gain access to life-saving naloxone.

Yet, our work not only allows us to address crises but promotes health too. We’ve increased nutrition assistance benefits enrollment among college students, immigrants, and families. And, we’re in a unique position to see how mental health challenges contribute to nearly every other health issue. 96% of those aware of our very targeted mental health stigma reduction campaigns have taken action to find out more about mental health concerns. 

Creating a business that delivered more than results against the bottom line fueled my pursuit of our certified B Corp status within the first few months of taking the helm at Rescue in 2014. We transitioned to a public benefit corporation in 2017, cementing our mission of making healthy behaviors easier and more appealing into the legal charter of our company. And as of Jan. 1, we transitioned to being a 100% employee-owned company through an employee stock ownership plan. When we grow, we deliver improved health results in more communities at the county, state, and national levels. At the same time, Rescue’s profits go back into a retirement plan to support employees’ long-term financial health. 

Challenging Industry Norms

With these important steps, we’ve reimagined how an advertising agency can work. Instead of promoting products or angling to create purpose-driven brands, we are delivering improved measurable impact outcomes and are poised to contribute to the long-term financial success of our team. For me, building this type of company that channels business for good on so many levels has been an incredible learning journey. Almost every part of our corporate structure and economic engine works against the inertia of a traditional corporation — let alone typical marketing practices. 

It’s not easy to be impact-driven. Trade-offs are real, and the pull toward profitability over doing the right thing creates tension almost every day. Whether it’s saying no to an attractive new contract that doesn’t fit our mission or adding 12-week paid parental leave for all our new parents, Rescue is proving that doing the hard work is worth it. 

Our work is deployed at the national level as well as across 27 U.S. states, sharing life-changing and life-saving messages where more than half of the U.S. population lives. We know our model can positively impact value-driven health care models as well.

I know young Kristin would be proud of our work, and I know our incredible team is always pushing to create those unskippable ads that will end up in someone’s Instagram story or even on their bedroom wall propelling other young people to create new, better realities for themselves and the world in which they live, work, and play.

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