2013-05-30

How An Advertising Executive Turned Her Expertise In Selling Things Toward Good

Susan Smith Ellis, the former CEO of (RED), went from a top ad agency to a different sort of marketing job: Getting people to buy products that also give back.

“I believe in a generosity of spirit, which has nothing to do with financial generosity, a feeling that what goes around, comes around,” says Susan Smith Ellis. “You get so much more out of it than you could ever give.” Smith Ellis is the former CEO of Product (RED), the global marketing company founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver to help combat the AIDS pandemic in Africa. As she sees it, she’s been incredibly lucky—for being both in the right place at the right time to get that job and able to use her talents to effect change around the globe.

Growing up in New Jersey, Smith Ellis admired her parents’ commitment to community, learning by example to care for others outside her immediate family. Her parents helped opened her eyes to understanding that giving can take on many different forms. Even today at age 89, her father continues her mother’s tradition of making a casserole for the homeless each week.

Smith Ellis’s successful career path began in advertising, where she worked on a wide range of pro bono projects that allowed her to hone her craft. During this early stage of her professional life, Smith Ellis also served on the board of the Boston Ballet and helped build a shelter for homeless veterans. Her involvement in the latter project was inspired by the challenges her own brother, a Vietnam veteran, faced after coming home from war.

After the birth of her second child, Smith Ellis took a break from her career to focus on her family and changing priorities. When she wanted back in the workforce six years later, she landed a senior position at Omnicom, a top advertising agency.

Rising through the ranks, Smith Ellis became the CEO of Team Omnicom, and in charge of the firm’s major account, Bank of America, when she received an unexpected call from a headhunter. Product (RED), which finances programs to fight AIDS, TB and malaria, wanted her as CEO. Smith Ellis was hesitant, but her children saw it as an opportunity of a lifetime. “You have to go and talk to them,” her daughter said, “because you’d be doing all the boring things you do anyway but you’d be saving people’s lives.” Smith Ellis agreed that it was the right time to leverage her talents, her network, and the power of marketing for social initiatives.

Intrigued by the (RED) business model of using a licensing mark to harness the power of big brands to help save lives, Smith Ellis excelled at bridging the gap between the private and public sectors. She turned this startup venture into a popular brand and fast-growing enterprise with an increase in sales from the (RED) product campaign from $18 million to $180 million during her tenure.

A pioneer in social enterprise, (RED) embraced commercialism and consumption for the benefit of healthcare in African countries. “The genius of their idea was to leverage brands, create a collaboration, have profits go to the Global Fund, and build awareness at the same time and reach new audiences.” Under Smith Ellis’ leadership, (RED) expanded its web of product partnerships, sponsoring The Lazarus Effect, a Spike Jonze documentary about AIDS patients in Zambia before and after they receive antiretroviral drugs, and uniting with Damian Hirst and Sotheby’s to auction off original (RED)-inspired works of art for over $42 million.

This is the latest post in a series on generosity, in conjunction with Catchafire.
Her own a-ha moment—when she not only believed in the mission of the organization but connected personally with the people whom the organization served—was on her first trip to Africa as a representative of (RED). In witnessing the direct impact of the efforts of (RED), she felt truly and powerfully engaged in the agency of (RED) to transform the lives of others. The experience gave her authenticity and credibility when speaking about the difference their efforts were making, the growth of the organization and the tremendous challenges and opportunities still ahead. The visit to Africa also reinforced her decision to forego the financial benefits of her previous job in order to help others. “There are days, having two children in college, when I think that was amazing but I sacrificed a lot financially,” she said. “But those are very rare days. What I got of it, made it worth it. I got outside the bubble of my life and felt a much greater connection to the world. I realized we all have so much in common. It’s not about socio-economics. It’s about humanity. Isn’t that better than some shares?”

After (RED), Smith Ellis again paused her career to spend more time with her children before they headed off to college. Today, she serves as a board member for Grass Roots Soccer and the Friends of the Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and is working on select projects while she contemplates her next move. Her attention will most likely turn again to the intersection of corporations and social good. “I’d like to be in something where there are the resources and the commitment to engage,” she said. “Big companies have siloed their foundations from corporate social responsibility, marketing and branding. There’s an opportunity to marry all that and marry the employee base to the cause.”

For the next generation following in her footsteps, she advises, “Go to places where you can effect change from the inside. There’s not one job description for that. You have the ability to drive the change because you won’t work any other way. Use your voice.” As evidenced by the trajectory of Susan Smith Ellis, no matter what you do, if done well, you can apply it in a way to create positive change all over the world.

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