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Communications to Power Public Opinion

If you’re a regular listener to this show, you know that our conversations run the gamut; from interpersonal communications to corporate communications, we’re interested in communications that change lives. Today on the show, we’re going even bigger. 

Jeff Caporizzo is Senior Partner and Executive Creative Director at ICF Next, an agency dedicated to “Next-level participation.” That sounds like a big promise in today’s connected communications economy, but take a look at some of their work and you’ll see just how action backs the language. 

Jeff joins Carrie Fox today to talk about the power of mass communications and advertising to inform viewpoints, behaviors, and narratives, and even disrupt false or negative narratives. No time like the present, right?

Jeff is a creative storyteller. He has used his craft for good over the years, and in campaign after campaign, he’s helped his clients grow through challenging — even uncomfortable — lessons about the way they use language, image, and spokesvoices to tell the stories of their brands for the better. 

So, welcome to this conversation about message, power, and justice, all seen through the lens of the ad. Thanks to Jeff for his time and contribution to this conversation. We can’t wait to see what he creates next.

Episode Transcript

Carrie Fox:
Welcome to Mission Forward. I’m your host, Carrie Fox. Before we get started on today’s show, I want to give a quick setup to the conversation that’s about to unfold. Here at Mission Forward, our goal is to produce thought-provoking and actionable content about the power of communications. Sometimes we’re talking about interpersonal communications and sometimes we’re talking about corporate communications. But today, we’re talking about mass communications, the power of advertising to inform viewpoints, behaviors, and narratives, and the power of advertising to disrupt false or negative narratives.
To help us explore that topic a little more closely, I have invited Art Director and my dear friend, Jeff Caporizzo, Senior Partner, an Executive Creative Director at ICF Next onto the show. Jeff is a great storyteller and a great example of what we mean when we talk about communications change agents. I hope you enjoy this conversation, I know you will. And if you like what you hear, drop us a rating or review and check out missionforward.us for more episodes like this one. Now, onto the show.
So let’s just start right at the top and say how excited I am to have some time today with you, Jeff. And for those listening in, I first met Jeff Caporizzo about 15 years ago, give or take a few years, but when our offices were co-located in Silver Spring, Maryland. And I knew then he had this incredible gift for creative storytelling, and actually not just creative storytelling, but very intentional creative storytelling. And I have loved to see how he has used that craft for good in recent years, so I’m really excited for what this conversation is going to hold.
Jeff, as we get into this, as you know, on this show, we talk about the power of communications to move missions forward, but also the power of communications to bridge divides, to advance inclusion and belonging and ultimately justice, and the power that mass media has on how we understand and connect to both the world at large, but also the people who are right in front of us and around us. And so given your work as a creative director, I am excited for what we will tackle in this conversation, the role that you see ad executives and creative directors and creatives maybe more broadly playing in shaping and shifting and disrupting narratives. First, I want to start with you. I would love you to tell me a little bit more about your story, how you got into this line of work and what drives you every day.

Jeff Caporizzo:
Sure. Carrie, thank you and I look back fondly on when we would be able to meet outside for lunch, you and Brian and also seeing your little children start to grow up. And also, I’ve been following you on LinkedIn. I think that the work with Mission Partners and the work you’ve been doing overall throughout your career for advocacy and cause development is so impressive. It’s why I kept following you, so I’m really happy to be here and take part in that.
Keeping my back history as short as possible, I kind of backed into marketing and design and creative development. I was a fine arts major in college, immediately moved to New York City a month after I graduated, just to paint. That’s as far as I got really is just, I wanted to go to New York. I knew there was a lot of creative energy there and wanted to take part in that. And that was all true. New York was amazing. It’s a little bit different than the New York now, which is, I always laugh about it because it’s kind of like an outdoor mall now. When you walk through Times Square, you’ve got a Disney store and a lot of retail.
But when I was there, there were syringes on the ground outside the Port Authority and there was a Black Panther meeting that would happen every day on the street corner. And of course, you had a lot of illicit stuff going on as well, it was just more gritty. It was a different New York, but it had tremendous creative energy so I was there painting and I was working as a sign maker on 23rd Street and I met somebody and they were moving to DC and I said, “Oh, well then I’ve got to move to the Mid-Atlantic.” And being a sign maker was fine, but it’s a job that requires a lot of physical endurance and I knew that that wasn’t really going to have, I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with that as I aged.
And somebody had said, “You should try design.” And I didn’t even know what graphic design was, I remember sitting down with that person and they were like, “Well, the first thing you’re going to have to know is fonts.” And I was like, “What’s a font?” I remember distinctly asking that. They gave me a book of fonts and it was fascinating because those letter forms were magical to me. I thought they were so beautiful, and that’s kind of started me on a path and love for design. So I went to the New York Public Library, ripped out of the DC phone book, Yellow Pages, all of the design firms and started cold calling them from the basement of the School of Visual Arts. And many of them hung up on me because I had never touched a Macintosh and of course I wasn’t a design major.
But I got one, Atelier design or Atelier creative who said, “We have to see you.” “The fact that you’re cold calling us and you don’t know anything about design, what are you going to bring us?” And I said, “Well, I can bring you my canvases.” And they were like, “Bring us your canvases. So I brought up my canvases,” God bless them, to this day, Pete [inaudible 00:05:52], and Ann Alger gave me a chance and that was my beginning. So it was one of those things where it literally came in not knowing, I was a production designer first, and through the different companies and years of, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge and skill to be where I am now, which I overall didn’t.

Carrie Fox:
Just on top of your game, right?

Jeff Caporizzo:
I’m trying.

Carrie Fox:
It’s incredible.

Jeff Caporizzo:
I had a lot of good teachers.

Carrie Fox:
So bring us up to speed, where are you now and where have you been the last few years?

Jeff Caporizzo:
Yeah, this is my third global agency, which is ICF. A lot of folks even in DC Metro don’t know about ICF. ICF, it stands for, it was made about 60, 65 years ago, stands for Inner City Fund. They were first in the Midwest. The inception was basically back in the day, consulting around helping minority businesses and other small businesses get access to government funding. The first president of ICF was a Tuskegee airman and that started to, through acquisition, they kept expanding all of that skill and all of that offering and capability around operations and programs specifically in tech as well.
So for big companies and organizations in government, they’ll come in and say, “Hey, Department of Energy, you need a specific platform and organizational structure to get to the things that you want. We’re going to tell you how to do that.” Nearest competitors are Deloitte and Accenture, as well as some of the communication firms like Weber Shandwick, and Ogilvy. And all of it is in very much mission driven like you devoted your life to, and that it’s in the nonprofit government space for specialized audiences in cause development or advocacy for certain issues, so really rewarding to be on mission pretty much the entire portfolio.

Carrie Fox:
I want to just pause and pick up on a really interesting theme that I’m realizing from several people who have been on this season of the show. So Jeff, when you were sharing your story and said, “I wasn’t a designer, I didn’t have a Mac,” right?

Jeff Caporizzo:
Right.

Carrie Fox:
But that you got into this work and you were so incredibly skilled at it, you had the vision and the creative, even if you didn’t yet have the technical skill for it. Last week I was talking with Craig Newmark, who will also be on this episode, and I was asking him how he got to be so in tune to how philanthropy works. He’s really become known in recent years as a very active philanthropist. And he said, “I’m good at it because I don’t know what I’m doing.” And then earlier this year I spoke with Iara Peng at JustFund, who is really challenging how philanthropy works in technology and on technology spaces, and she said the same thing, “This isn’t my space. I just showed up one day and I saw something that wasn’t working and I found a different way to do it.” It feels really important to think about that, that people who take the traditional path and what it means and the potential of coming in an alternative path.

Jeff Caporizzo:
I think there’s pros and cons to both. I had a first cousin who went to Ringling School of Art and Design, had a really straight path to certainly more money off the bat, because when I came to work for that DC firm, I basically said, “I’ll be your in house illustrator for free just so I could learn skills.” So I think there is something to be said. For example, my industry in design, if you went to SVA, if you went to SCAD, if you went to RISD, that’s a straighter path and that has advantages. I think that the path that I took which is certainly more meandering and has a little bit more of, you’ve got to just bust ass and hustle, you’re becoming good at learning and you’re becoming good at that hustle and that hunger and it helps you. Later on, you can climb learning curves faster.
So I think there’s advantages to it, but art and design are so close, there’s a lot of skills. I still tell people to this day that the hardest thing I can do during a year is trying to make a successful painting. It really is. I consider design almost like, it’s like a wind sprint for that kind of work, and not taking anything away from any of it. I think they’re very much hand in hand so I did have help there, in that it wasn’t a completely foreign language, it was just more concentrated and had specifics around business.

Carrie Fox:
Right. No, one of the main many reasons why I’ve always liked to watch you work and see how you work is that I’ve always valued the connectivity between words and images, the power of compelling words and compelling design. And many times on this show we are talking about the power of words, the impact of words, whether we realize or not the language we are using. But I’d love for us to talk a little bit about how you think about the power of design to shape or shift narratives, that great line of art creates culture. Can it also recreate culture? Can it challenge culture? And how do you think about the power that design has in shaping and shifting a narrative?

Jeff Caporizzo:
Absolutely, I think it is one of the most powerful tools you can do to create a narrative or to change culture. Design is all around us, and I’m not just talking graphic design. One of the things that for you and I at stages in our life, and certainly you see this in popular media, people have gotten to a greater degree in understanding of interior design. Look at it, the success of HGTV, right? And the reason I was pointing to our age groups is because many times we’re beyond that starter house, beyond that starter apartment, and we’re now getting into actually shaping and designing our environment. And this was what the whole thing about Target, when Target, what was the difference between Target and Walmart is that Michael Graves made a blender. So Walmart was like, “I’m going to give you a blender for five bucks.” Target was like, “I’m going to give you a blender for $6, but it’s going to look like a piece of art.”
So that understanding of design is something that people, I think is much higher over the last two decades than it was. And the reason I bring it up is because I think people are realizing that design and shaping your environment, designing your environment, whether it’s two dimensional or three dimensional, whether you’re living in it or looking at it, makes you who you are. So that gets back to what you were talking about, which is the storytelling. It’s like, what’s my story? Well, the reason I’m spending so much time on getting Michael Graves’ blender on my counter is because I have a vision for what I want my story to be, and this is my backdrop, this is my setting, this is the stage I’m on.
And so I’ll be talking, my girlfriend sometimes, we had this joke one time. She had to clean out her refrigerator and I go, “This refrigerator is a metaphor for your life.” We were just kidding around, and it was a mess. And we were laughing about that. But I think that people’s understanding, when we see those HGTV shows, we’re like… Okay, I used to go on my backyard, my mom’s clothesline was across the finger, almost strangled me when I would try to run around and stuff. Now people have backyards that look like, it looks like you’re at MGM Resorts, you know what I mean? And it’s because of design, and it’s because I think we’re conscious of that and we’re seeing the effect of it that those design elements can really make a difference about how you entertain, how you live your life, how you spend your leisure, how you feel about where you live. And of course that gets into, that’s an important principle to carry forward into the work that you and Mission Partners does.

Carrie Fox:
The process of informing the design, has that changed for you or your agency or your industry over time on how you are thinking about the sources or the insights that are ensuring that you are creating a design that works across cultures?

Jeff Caporizzo:
Yeah, I think you’re starting with the audience, obviously you’re trying to grab that audience lens and use it to try to gain insights, to try to figure out beyond the observation on the audience, what are the things that are real drivers for them that it would really get some engagement and most importantly, not try to sell them something. That’s the difference between that old school Madison Avenue stuff and I think now is that people’s collective notice for bullshit is much higher. It’s much more acute. But also when you’re trying to reach diverse audiences, you’re not trying to sell them something. You’re trying to actually be authentic to where they are, their lived experience, where they’re coming from in order to engage them. And that authenticity is what we often get stuck on because we’re trying to, the mistake we make is that we’re trying to push something out to them versus actually engaging them.
Engagement is two way, and so that authenticity, if you feel like somebody’s just throwing stuff at you, that you’re like, “Okay, I’m just going to shut this off. I’ve got enough going on in my life, I don’t want it.” But that when you feel like somebody’s being authentic and actually trying to reach you in an authentic way, in a human way, that’s what we’re reaching for. And it’s very hard to do because you have to start out with getting to know that audience. And that’s, oftentimes the pacing and the budget and all that other crap gets in the way. So I think that that’s much, to answer your question from then to now, I think there’s a greater emphasis on knowing the audience, being authentic to the audience, reflecting the audience. And I think it’s harder because there’s not a broad brush anymore, that those audiences are demanding and rightly so, that it’s an authentic voice based on them, for them.

Carrie Fox:
Case in point of that, it’s about a year ago I was in a meeting with a group of healthcare executives and we were talking about how to get some critical COVID messages out to different communities. And one of the executives spoke up and he said, “I really think we need to do some videos. This is the thing, I know that’s what I would respond to. And I really think that the audience will respond to that too.” And we dug a little bit more and we said, “Well, how do you know that that’s the platform that the audience?” He said, “Well, it would work for me, so I would imagine that it works for others.” And that was the moment, that we have to continue to monitor, are we solving for ourselves or are we solving for our audience? Two very different things.

Jeff Caporizzo:
Absolutely, yeah. Yeah, that’s a huge deal. I fall, so I always have to remind myself to pull out of that which I think is a misstep, to pull out of that misstep because my background as a male, as a northeastern male, as an Italian American male, that is such a limited point of view and doesn’t apply to so many, so much of the audiences we’re trying to reach now in America as it is today. And so that’s where it gets into that listening, that authentic and concentrated listening that you do to the audience.

Carrie Fox:
You’ve been doing some really interesting things and I don’t know if there’s a story that you can share with us, but how you’re thinking about who the spokesperson is in the campaign or how to engage different voices or unexpected voices in the campaign, I find that work really interesting. Anything you can share there?

Jeff Caporizzo:
Yeah, absolutely. We had a client that we were introducing a spokesperson for the first time into their marketing mix. And we’re all familiar with spokespeople, nothing avant garde about using a spokesperson. We love Lily for AT&T, we love Flo for Progressive. I remember doing case studies learning about how Mr. Whipple, squeezing the Charmin back in the day was just so, it just took those sales through the roof. And the reason that that’s a ready tool is because it humanizes the brand and people want to see people. With Flo, I mean, think about insurance, how are you going to sell insurance? But all of a sudden we’re laughing and smiling at Flo, it makes it more sense to us.
So because we were looking at the audiences and we knew we wanted to reflect who we’re actually talking to, we not only picked a female spokesperson, but also an African American spokesperson. This was groundbreaking for the brand and it was something that the studio had never done, and it’s hard enough to stand up a spokesperson for a brand. What was so fascinating, and we’re still in the middle of it, is there are so many considerations with that spokesperson. Knowing that you’re talking to an audience that wants something authentic, how does that affect the script? How does it affect the scriptwriters? How does it affect the way that the role that he or she might play in the spots and the interactions with the other actors? And what is the dynamic there?
We weren’t being authentic. We weren’t being authentic to that heritage. We weren’t being authentic to that audience, and it was coming off as canned and it was coming off as something that wouldn’t resonate. We even ran into, there’s certain tropes in cinema when you’re dealing with African American folks that you want to avoid, and we stumbled into one of those. And so we had to really pivot from a concept that was largely baked and shot. And it was a huge learning experience. I’m so glad we went through it. It’s something that we’re taking forward with the campaign, but it certainly was eye opening.
And it was something, as we brought in, I think I mentioned to you before we started recording, that we have at ICF, we have a special team that’s devoted to reaching specialized audiences and making sure that we’re really listening to them and that we really are reflecting their background and that we’re speaking to them in their language and that we’re making sure that they’re seen and heard and represented in the right way. And that specialty was developed midstream for all this creative development. And so even as that practice was standing up, we were then bringing them into the creative development, and learning all of that together.
So it’s been very dynamic, and certainly something I’ve never run into of doing this for 25 years, which is exciting. You’re learning, but also it’s hard because the tools that 10 years ago, this would’ve been done and on the air. The tools that were in my toolbox, I’ve had to throw some of them out and I’ve had to add to a lot of them. So that was something that for me was exciting but also frustrating because I’m like, “Oh, I’ve got this down. I’m a hundred years old, I’ve been doing this for a long time, I’ve got it.” And I was like, “Nope, I’ve got to check all those premises and come at it in a different way and ask for help,” and so that’s been great.

Carrie Fox:
But it sounds like, I mean, it’s such a healthy process. The challenge of going through challenging what you knew and how you went through the process to be able to grow in real time through that, that’s exciting. That is evolution.

Jeff Caporizzo:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s very exciting. It really is, and you’re seeing so many brands wrestle with that. I mean, that’s been so interesting about the George Floyd systemic racism discussion and in the country is that we all laugh as communicators and marketers at these brand missteps.

Carrie Fox:
Right.

Jeff Caporizzo:
That something, I forget what happened with, there was a shoe company who tweeted something literally the day after the verdict or whatever. And that evolution has been demanded across all disciplines. And you can see that some folks are not leaning into it and saying, “Okay, how can I learn?” Some folks are just ignoring it, and some folks are actively pushing it back against it. I love that ICF is open to that. One of the things that’s cool about the company I work for is that being consultants, they’re always thinking, what’s the best tool? Who’s the right person? That’s really the only bias they have in terms of an approach. It’s like, “Hey, how do we get the right mix going?” And it really served us well in this challenge.

Carrie Fox:
That comes back to what you were saying earlier around authenticity too, of brands who rush to build a public facing campaign that is, it seems purposeful, it seems intentional, and yet they’ve not done the depth of learning or inward reflection in the organization to be able to make that authentic. And often that’s where it looks like the breakdown happens when someone or an organization is rushing to get that out before the hard work has been done.

Jeff Caporizzo:
Yeah, I’ve seen research and audience research in particular be the Achilles heel for large agencies through my career. And the reason for that is because time is money and they’re looking at that time, they want to gallop towards the deliverable and because the client wants a deliverable. And so often that pivotal research and insight phase is [inaudible 00:23:57] and what we’re learning is, especially when we’re talking about this, today’s landscape for comms, you can’t blow that off.

Carrie Fox:
Right.

Jeff Caporizzo:
Because what ends up happening is that you end up producing something that doesn’t ring true to the special audience you’re trying to reach. It just doesn’t work.

Carrie Fox:
Right. Well, it’s an important, although different way of thinking about packaging advertising and creative, which is yes, you are going to hire the expert like Jeff or someone else to do this campaign, but that Jeff is going to be learning with you along the way as you’re learning about your audience and getting steeped in your audience and understanding how to bring that message to the audience in a way that’ll resonate so deeply. And so investing in the shared learning is such an incredible part of the end result.

Jeff Caporizzo:
Right. Or coming in and having that person who already is the expert on the audience and the subject matter. Sometimes that can be the same role, sometimes that can be in a different role so that if you’re a client, you’re like, “Well, I’m not going to want to pay for Cap to learn all this stuff,” and I get it, right, so what you would do is make sure that there’s someone on the team who’s owning that role and is able to then steward the work through along with the other roles. But that person has to be there, and traditionally, they have not been. So it’s an interesting, it changes the dynamic.

Carrie Fox:
One more question, but first I want to make a connection back to maybe part of thinking about what you were just talking about how in that last project you were learning along the way. I am thinking back to the first project that you and I worked on together. If you can remember it, it was an incredible public service announcement for a campaign called Success Beyond 18. And you had this incredible vision about how we could not have any talent in the piece, but that every person in that PSA was going to be a young person who had aged out of foster care, and they were going to own the story and tell it in their own words. And I remember setting up that set and running through that day, which went flawlessly. The power, Jeff, of that piece, of that 30 seconds of content and how that went on to transform laws in 25 states where governors took the initiative to change the law to allow a young person to stay in care until their 25th birthday, the power of how that story was told was because of how authentic the story was.

Jeff Caporizzo:
Absolutely, yeah. And it’s funny you bring that up, Carrie, because as I learned about that issue where basically you had these kids who were going through foster care already under incredible challenges throughout their development, and then suddenly when they reach a certain age, that support net is just pulled out from underneath them, I still think about that. I can’t imagine, and it really struck me at the time when we were building this, I can’t imagine how that must feel, because they’re already dealing with so much.
And so that’s where you’re never going to come up with a creative concept that’s more powerful than their personal story and journey. And really, your job is to get out of the way and let them tell it and that’s what we tried to do. We had to do it in 30 seconds, so we had to do it with a visual metaphor. But whenever you see that so often with stuff that is really vital to the human family, which really hits us where we live as human beings, you’ve just got to let those folks represented and tell that story, and it usually works if you do it right.

Carrie Fox:
I’m going to ask Jeff, as we are wrapping up, what is giving you hope as you think about the work you’re doing or the sector you’re in or the world around you, what’s giving you hope these days?

Jeff Caporizzo:
What’s giving me hope is that, first of all, ICF, it’s all mission driven so as long as you have people who are working hard towards some of these goals that we all have to make the world a better place, that’s something that’s always inspirational to me and the people I meet and work with to help me do that or to partner with is an inspiration. And then I’m such a creative zealot and enthusiast. I’m always inspired by the great work from not only the team I work with, but my peers in the industry like you and some of the other folks. And that’s what drives me. How many times will I see just a cool campaign, whether it’s in cause development or commercial or something like that. And I sit there and I just, I’m like, “That’s perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing on that. It’s so wonderful.” We share them all the time in studio with each other. That’s what gets me excited in the morning, because I have a chance to make something like that so that’s what I’m looking for.

Carrie Fox:
Thanks Jeff for the work that you do, and for being with us today.

Jeff Caporizzo:
Absolutely Carrie, I was happy to be here.

Carrie Fox:
And that brings us to the end of this episode of Mission Forward. Thanks for tuning in today. If you’re stewing in what we discussed here today, or if you heard something that’s going to stick with you, drop me a line over at [email protected] and let me know what’s got you thinking. And if you have thoughts for where we should go in future shows, I’d love to hear that too.
Mission Forward is produced with the support of Sadie Lockhart in association with TruStory FM. Engineering by P. Wright. If your podcast app allows for ratings and reviews, I hope you’ll consider doing just that for this show. But the best thing you can do to support Mission Forward is simply share the show with a friend or a colleague. Thanks for your support and we’ll see you next time.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.