SANDY HOOK, CT – The first thing you’ll notice when you pull up to the offices of Mediassociates, a midsize media-services agency headquartered here, is the bucolic sound of water flowing over the side of a waterfall into a tributary of the Pootatuck River that used to power a 19th-century mill that has since been converted into its office building.
The setting is serene and meditative, and you might even feel a little like you've been transported in time as you enter the exposed brick-and-wooden beam interior. You’ll almost forget you are in a modern-day ad agency’s offices until you spot an illuminated “Google Premiere Partner” sign on a wall outside its glass-enclosed conference room.
You might also want to forget the location for another reason: it’s just a quarter mile from one of the most tragic mass shootings on American soil, which took place ten years ago today.
But the team at Mediassociates cannot. Nor do they want to, because the agency is inextricably linked to the community in ways that define its culture and differentiate it from the rest of the ad industry.
“It’s something I think about every day,” acknowledges Jeff Larson, who was a resident of the Newtown, Connecticut hamlet long before he became the agency’s president nearly six years ago after a career spent marketing some of Connecticut’s most iconic brands -- fresh food retailer Stew Leonard’s and the Subway quick-serve restaurant chain.
Like so many of the Mediassociates staff -- including some who are renegades from big agency holding company shops -- Larson was attracted by the location and the unique collaborative culture of the agency and the community it is based in.
“You know, people here say 'Nicer in Newtown,' and I think that’s true,” says Jesse Rosenschein, who joined the agency as its media chief in 2017 after marketing several Connecticut-based businesses including Taunton Press.
Like Larson, Rosenschein is a resident of the community, and both are parents of children who are public-school students here, so I found it awkward when I asked them questions about how and why being an agency in a town known for such a horrific tragedy defines what it is. But Larson answered me anyway.
"The timing of the team moving into this location was actually a month or two prior to it and the team had to go through the decision of, ‘Do we still move to town or not?’," he explains, adding: “And they decided - 'No, this is the right thing to do. Let’s support this community. Yes, it is absolutely a part of who we are'."
While Larson didn’t join until 2017, when Mediassociates Founder and CEO Scott Brunjes asked him to take over the day-to-day management of the agency, he already was a resident of Sandy Hook and says he felt a special connection to the community, including close friendships with many of the victims’ families.
"This has always been a community-focused organization," Larson says, adding that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting tragedy "has created more connections to the community that pull from what happened and our responsibility to be supporting it."
In addition to employing many local residents and supporting local businesses, the agency taps into its local community culture in other ways.
“Part of our culture is giving back to the community-at-large,” says Rosenschein. “That’s the World Vision part of it, but we do it locally too.”
By World Vision, Rosenschein was referring to a project the agency collaborated on with nonprofit World Vision to build a drinkable water system in the Honduran village of Pueblo Viejo, but closer to home Mediassociates helped launch a women’s empowerment initiative with the Women’s Center of Greater Danbury and its team volunteers with Connecticut Food Share to provide meals for low-income senior citizens in the community.
The agency’s proximity often comes up in conversations with clients and media reps, but Larson says it’s just a part of what Mediassociates is.
“We don’t use it, but it’s part of who we are, so we’re certainly not shy about talking about it,” he explains.
When I came to interview the management team for this article in early November, Sandy Hook was in the news again, because the victims’ families had just won a record judgment against “Info Wars” Alex Jones. So I asked what the impact of that was, and how it felt to be media-buying professionals working at an agency in a community like Sandy Hook that was routinely being slandered and dragged through the mud because of digital-media outlets, and amplified by social media.
“The tragedy these families went through -- to have it dragged through the mud in that way that individuals like Alex Jones were doing, and to have some accountability for that -- and to transition to the media conversation -- is super important," Larson says, adding: “Personally, for me it was really important.
“For our industry? I hope it’s a wake-up call that you can’t just put out anything out there. There has to be some accountability for it.”
In terms of the greater role that ad-supported social media have played in amplifying the tragedy of it, Rosenschein said "that's a heavy question.
"I think the world we’re living in today -- there’s always some element of risk being in social media. I think like many things it becomes a conversation that is very specific to clients and their comfort levels. We do as much as we can as a media agency to put safeguards around undesirable content. It's a conversation we have a lot these days."
But for all the negativity associated with it, she says there are also great opportunities to amplify positive messages -- particularly for brands -- and that it's up to agencies like Mediassociates to help guide their clients through it.
She likened the recent increasing sensitivity about Twitter since Elon Musk acquired it to the brand-safety concerns that surrounded TikTok just a a couple of years ago -- but she noted that TikTok worked hard to address them and now allows third-party brand-safety solutions to be integrated into its media-buying process, allaying many clients' concerns.
“That kind of tension has been around for decades and decades," says Larson, noting that "advertisers want to chase audiences and audiences go where there’s scandal.
"There’s always been that kind of conflict between going after an audience and not being next to the sensitive content. It underscores the need to be nimble and adapt as things change."