Hurricane Katrina changed New Orleans dramatically and subtly. Individually and collectively, we changed too. As a company, we re-examined the values we set out at our launch, and found we didn't measure up too well. Umberto Eco suggests all things are a matter of fidelity: how faithful are you to your beliefs?
We had founded Trumpet to create work of integrity, with impact, style and substance; we wanted to work for good people who shared our values. Pre-Katrina, our strategy was to look outwards; we loved the soulful humanity and rich cultural inspiration of New Orleans, but the city had been in decline for generations. By acquiring national clients, we believed we could demonstrate the economic power of the city's creative culture and help to catalyse reinvention.
After the storm, we were forced to challenge our own bullshit. We fired our two biggest clients - one in Los Angeles, the other in New York - and committed ourselves to the reinvention of our home. We worked at the recovery's core, partnering planners, architects and strategists in urban planning, public education, government reform, economic development, public health, entrepreneurship and coastal restoration.
Some years ago, this might have been odd territory for an ad agency to occupy but the best agencies today understand that there is a holism to which their work must answer. This goes way beyond the idea of a bunch of people in the ad industry wishing to take a more socially responsible role.
Communications are central to accomplishing anything, but in the modern world this has become a truism - a particularly pertinent one in the wake of a catastrophe such as Katrina, but also applicable to far more mundane situations.
At the core of many day-to-day problems is the inability to make a decision, but our industry can distil debates, mobilise interested parties and help get things done. As Barack Obama would doubtless attest, communication is never more important than when a catalyst is needed to activate the apathetic.
As creative companies, our role is to propel great vision and transformation in the name of utility, social responsibility and sustainability. Our experience is emblematic of an America where people intuitively recognised things are out of sorts.
It touches on the rise of corporate responsibility and sustainability strategies, the fourth sector's quest for social purpose with financial promise, and heightened environmental awareness.
It is fuelled by the optimism of those who sense opportunity and obligation. Ours has been a solid brush with doing well by doing good, and is proof that positive things can emerge from disaster.
- Robbie Vitrano is the co-founder and president of Trumpet Group in New Orleans.