Life’s trials can become a catalyst for action. Often personal difficulties will spur action, not only in one’s personal life but also in their work life. That was the case with Publicis Media’s chief strategy officer Richard Hartell. After his son was diagnosed with diabetes, Hartell made it a personal mission to support the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). As his involvement grew, he worked to get Publicis Media involved, as well.
In this conversation with Hartell, I uncover how that serious family moment led to him to so extensively engage with and support the JDRF. We also discuss how Publicis Media then got involved with the foundation’s recent One Walk event in New York, and what lessons Hartell and his colleagues learned along the way.
Philip McKenzie: What motivated you to get involved with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation?
Richard Hartell: Three years ago, my son, nine years old at the time, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. It was a shock to my family and we didn't know what to do. Everything happened very quickly as [he went] from a state of being fine to being very sick. Having to tell a nine-year-old boy that this disease will be a part of his life is a heart-wrenching experience. So, in trying to cope and handle all of this, we did some research and came across the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. I got in touch and they were super helpful and a valuable resource to my family and me. That first year, I raised money during my New York City Marathon run. I knew I wanted to do more. Subsequently, I was asked to be a chair for their One Walk event, and I thought that would be great for a more significant contribution.
McKenzie: What was it about the culture at Publicis that made you feel it would be the right environment for a program like the One Walk event?
Hartell: I felt confident that Publicis would get behind it and support [JDRF] because I have witnessed that before with other people who have a personal attachment to a charity. First, Publicis is very engaged when the required action goes above and beyond a sponsorship and the work is focused on a particular program that is a direct benefit to the charity. Second, we have many agencies within Publicis that have robust employee engagement programs that are looking to get people involved. Third, as an agency, we have partners … and an extended vendor community that might also want to be involved. So, all of those factors told me we were dealing with an ecosystem that had the willingness and the resources to do something extraordinary.
McKenzie: What were some of the steps needed to pull all of those resources and affinity groups together?
Hartell: The first thing we did was to organize a series of breakfast events throughout our agencies with myself and the JDRF NYC lead to educate people on what juvenile diabetes is and how it affects people. As we started to have these conversations, we wanted people to understand what it took to manage this disease and what it was really like. I [shared] my situation with my son.
Once we connected in these personal ways, it all started to snowball in terms of activity. We began to channel that activity into a direct sponsorship via Publicis and other partners. As the momentum built, more people [started] to come forward because the disease had touched them in some way, and they wanted to give back. Our activity ended up being a connective tissue for many people who were in various relationships with the disease to find one another.
McKenzie: Is there value in Publicis facilitating employees to engage in charitable giving projects that can translate into their work?
Hartell: Yes. Many of our engagement activities are dependent on our teams going out into the community. I think it is essential to get out of the New York City advertising agency bubble and spend time with real people. It is crucial to our business that we correctly engage with and understand people. These types of initiatives are a big part of that. It encourages empathy and understanding. That is a very translatable set of skills to bring back to the office.
McKenzie: Given the scope of your work on behalf of JDRF, what do you see as the future of corporate and charitable engagement?
Hartell: I think active engagement is better than money, but money is still significant. A high level of active participation and commitment provides you with more stickiness and more connectivity to the cause. The more connected you are, the more you will understand the issues better; you'll be more inclined to come back again and, more importantly, become an advocate. Your engagement becomes infectious as you bring others into the fold.
McKenzie: Why do you think One Walk was so successful, and what lessons have you learned from chairing the event?
Hartell: We undoubtedly exceeded expectations, and I believe that is a testament to everyone's hard work and dedication to making the event a success. People were inspired, and our results are proof of that.
My primary takeaway was that an emotional connection is essential if you're going to get people to volunteer their time and their resources. I had very personal reasons that brought me into this process, and it was instructive for me to see that people responded to those emotional cues and never hesitated to dive in.
McKenzie: What's next in this relationship between Publicis and JDRF?
Hartell: We want to do more; I believe next year we will be on board with the One Walk event. I think the next-level opportunity is also to raise awareness and more broadly become part of the education process about juvenile diabetes. We have incredible creatives and thinkers at our disposal at Publicis. If we can leverage that intellectual and creative capital, and that of our partners, we can move the dial on this issue.
Recently, Vice Media, which is a partner of ours, reported on the high price for insulin relative to our neighbors [across the border in Canada and Mexico]. We connected them to JDRF and now there is an exploration on the editorial side to bring attention to their work. The more voices we have working in unison, the more progress we can make. I am proud to be part of that process.
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