Brian Monahan's Quest For Another 'Schoolhouse Rock' Moment

The following interview was conducted with Brian Monahan a couple of weeks ago, just after two mass shootings in California, but before this week's mass shooting at the Michigan State University. It was a follow up to news that Monahan, whose day job is global client president and head of Dentsu's Innovation Initiative, had succeeded Carolyn Everson as executive director of the Gun Safety Alliance.

What I did not know at the time was that Monahan's mother was a school teacher in the Sandy Hook Elementary School during that tragic mass shooting, and has felt compelled to do something about it ever since. If you're someone in the industry who is interested in doing the same, reach out to Monahan, because he's now in charge of the ad industry's central clearinghouse for anyone who wants to help organizations trying to make a difference to stop gun violence in America.



MediaPost: How do you do it all?

Brian Monahan: To be honest with you, this gun-safety stuff is something I wish I didn’t have to do, but when your mom is in a school shooting it kind of becomes something that is an obligation.

With the GSA, we basically channel pro bono marketing resources to whoever is trying to reduce gun violence in America. And there’s a spectrum of actors and physicians. On one hand you have Sandy Hook Promise, which is doing really good work trying to educate — mostly other children — about how to spot kids who might be having mental issues, and flag it.

And on the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got March for Our Lives or other Parkland groups that are willing to be a lot more provocative in the positions they take.

We’ve got some work to do, but there is a movement underfoot that’s really questioning whether these lockdown drills are net positive in terms of the impact they have on children, or whether the trauma and mental-health implications are worth it.

But either way, to think that’s the only answer for how we’re going to keep kids safe in schools is just ludicrous, if not infuriating.

MediaPost: I guess people feel like they have to do something? So GSA is basically channeling marketing resources to any gun-safety organizations based on need and impact?

Monahan: It’s an interesting time. You can go back and look at big social changes like marriage equality, or smoking cessation, or seatbelt and drunk driving — other causes that all have a different nuance to them — but the gun-violence issue is way more complicated because of the complexity of the issue.

It’s probably the first time you’ve had a movement like this trying to address a real problem in our society that has this money-making, well-funded machine on the other side of it. And it’s shielded from any sort of restrictions in their pursuit of profit.

And on the other side, there is this constellation of what are largely victims groups. There’s hundreds of these organizations and all of them have a part to play in it.

When Carolyn Everson set this up, she had this genius insight: Don’t compete with them. I mean, at the end of the day, you’re competing for fund-raising, but the GSA from the outset had the wisdom to say, “We’re not going to go out and try and raise money, and yes, that means we won’t have full-time dedicated staff, but we’re just going to count on the passion of people we can mobilize and try to channel them to these groups that do fund-raise, and have paid staff, and some staying power, and can hopefully be some kind of counterbalance to the gun industry.

So, yes, anyone who is trying to stop gun violence in America is somebody we want to help.

MediaPost: Do you see any parallels with the climate crisis, which has an even bigger industry than the gun industry — the fossil fuel industry — opposing change? And we’ve seen some action with Congressional hearings on greenwashing this year, including exposes on what the energy industry — and their agencies and PR firms -have done to block any action on climate change.

Monahan: It’s a really good analogy in terms of an asymmetrical cultural debate with one side just making a ton of money and the other side just dealing with the impact. But climate change is global, and gun violence is more of an American thing.

I was just reading about the 50th anniversary of “Schoolhouse Rock!” and that’s probably the high-water mark of Madison Avenue’s positive impact on our culture. And it made me wonder, as an industry, are we capable of doing something like that again?

I mean, where are the other examples of really talented culture shapers successfully impacting culture to make us safer? We’re trying to harness the talent and resources of the industry to solve one of these problems.

MediaPost: But hasn’t a lot changed since the days of “Schoolhouse Rock!,” not the least of which is that the media marketplace — and the information marketplace — has become more highly fragmented? Could it be that all of these well-intentioned organizations competing to make the world a better and safer place creating noise-to-signal problems?

Monahan: It’s a good question. I don’t know what the alternative is, because you wind up with different organizations getting funded for different reasons. Usually, it is because a community has suffered gun violence and wants to do something about it.

We’re doing things at the state level, like Colorado Cease Fire. They’re a state that is turning purple and has a real chance of passing some legislation. We’re doing some things in Connecticut, trying to help set up a violence de-escalation service in the city of Bridgeport.

It’s just such a wide swath of people who are trying to attack the gun-violence problem in their community. I think they’re all deserving and it’s an all-hands-on-deck moment.

We did some back of the envelope math with gun-violence data, and with very crude math we estimate the average American has a one-in-five chance of experiencing gun violence personally: One-in-five Americans will have either their spouse, children or grandchildren be shot. It’s just that prevalent.

So it is an all-hands-on-deck moment, and there is plenty of resource if we can harness it in the marketing industry beyond one campaign a year that the good people at the Ad Council can do.

We’re just trying to do more.

MediaPost: So is the GSA the clearinghouse for Madison Avenue? You work with the Ad Council and these other organizations. I mean, you’re all rowing in the same direction, but if you go back to the climate change analogy, there have been lots of initiatives over the years, but right now there seems to be a coordinated industry effort emerging with Ad Net Zero. But even within that, there are some agencies moving in their own directions and develop some proprietary ways of decarbonizing media.How do you get around that?

Monahan: It’s a good question. We have been having some interesting conversations with the University of Michigan’s Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention to determine if there’s a canonical set of corporate policies that reduce the likelihood of on-premise gun violence. At which point you could start to imagine an index or a rubric to enforce those practices in the supply chain.

But we’re a long way from doing something like trying to decarbonize media-buying and/or advertising.

So yes, we are a clearinghouse or a matchmaker trying to channel the talent of the marketing industry to help gun violence organizations.Every time there is a horrible shooting — like we just had with the two horrible California shootings — there’s an outpouring of people way they want to do something and we’re just trying to do a better job of capturing that energy and goodwill — harnessing it, locking it in and pointing it at a project.

And I hate to say it, but I’m going to have plenty of these horrible tragedies that are going to be fostering people to want to get involved.

We’re just trying to figure out how to capture that energy and put it to work.

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