“It was the most amazing thing hearing 3,000 people chanting about going back to school,” -Jeff Cruz, SVP and Creative Director for Leo Burnett Detroit.
Soon after Robert Bobb arrived at Detroit Public Schools (DPS) as the Emergency Financial Manager, he tasked Steve Wasko with an unusual project. Bobb had seen advertising agencies come together in other markets to support a community cause with a specific ad campaign. It was something Wasko, Chief Communications Officer for the district, set to work on.
One man at one agency agreed to take on the task of changing the perception of DPS. George Katsarelas from Leo Burnett Detroit looked at Wasko’s request as an opportunity during a time of great uncertainty. With the agency’s largest client facing bankrupcy, morale was low.
“What he envisioned was if we could put our efforts behind something as noble and important as the education of kids in our states biggest city, that if we could pull that off and do a good job on that, it could lift the entire agency,” said Don Peasley, VP and Account Director for Leo Burnett Detroit. “He asked me to throw myself at it. Of course, when George asked, you say yes.”
Soon after the initial concept of the Blue Door campaign was formed and after a few meetings with DPS, Katsarelas suffered a fatal heart attack. Immediately after receiving the news, Peasley knew he needed to remain involved, even though he was working on a project in San Fransisco. Cruz was new to the project but was inspired by the work of his mentor. When he received word of Katsarelas’ passing, there was no doubt he needed to step in to make sure this project happened.
What started as a way for the agency to give back to the community and to boost morale within the agency quickly became a movement within the community. Once the concept of the Blue Door was revealed to leadership at DPS, they were confident the creative team at Leo Burnett Detroit nailed it.
“It blew us all away,” recalls Wasko. “The ‘I’m in’, the great things that are happening, the Blue Doors, is all a credit to them.”
The Blue Doors became a symbol of the movement. There was a door for each school, symbolizing that walking through that one door at DPS can open hundreds of other doors to opportunity. Everyone knew this was a movement rather than a mere campaign when over 3,000 people came to a rally for the schools and 500 people volunteered to paint Blue Doors. Even Dr. Bill Cosby volunteered to help.
“The phone rings and it’s Bill Cosby,” chuckled Wasko. “And Dr. Cosby asks Mr. Bobb, ‘I want to be on your team. Where do I pick up my uniform?’”
That type of support led to many successes for the movement. DPS attracted more students than they had budgeted, allowing them to get more state aid to assist the turnaround of the district.
Most noteworthy in the advertising sphere, the movement won The Effie Award, given by Effie Worldwide for the most effective advertising campaigns of that year. The team who put the movement together won a few categories at the national awards show and were truly surprised when they won the Grand Effie.
The team that worked on the movement decided that the Katsarelas’ family should go with them to New York for the award presentation because they felt that it was his award. They racked up the three trophies they thought they would win and never expected to be among the finalists for the Grand Effie. When the finalists were announced, Peasley was not paying attention to the screen. He was taking a picture of the family. The anticipation was big until they won.
“It was kind of surreal to be quite honest with you, it was amazing,” said Cruz. “It felt like a great way to celebrate something that worked.
Initially, this movement proved that Detroit is hungry for change from the public school system. A separate campaign to engage more people from the region as tutors and mentors was another demonstration of that fact. Plans for the I’m In movement this year include a blue recruitment van, where parents can learn about the schools in their neighborhood and register their kids on the spot. Detroit Parents Network will also be involved, with a goal of calling on 4,000 households of families effected by recent school closures to help inform parents where their youngsters will be going to school.
Improved outcomes for a school system. An engaged community. A creative team re-energized. All because a few men had a big vision for an improved community.