The nonprofit ad agency behind Milwaukee’s edgiest campaigns

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Serve Marketing has developed several campaigns to show teenagers the cost of teen pregnancy.

At 7:20 a.m. on Aug. 14, 2001, Milwaukee-area drivers couldn’t escape the unrelenting sound of a wailing baby during their morning commute.

The 50-second radio spot of an infant crying played on radio stations across the region simultaneously, so efforts to avoid the cries were thwarted when listeners found the exact same sound across the dial. It was a radio roadblock.

Serve Marketing has developed several campaigns to show teenagers the cost of teen pregnancy.

Those who stuck it out to the end heard this message: “No matter how long she cries. No matter how tired you are. No matter how frustrated you get. Never, ever shake a baby.”

People, apparently, listened. After months of escalating shaken baby rates in the region – with 27 reported cases in the seven months leading up to the radio spot – they halted for four months once it aired.

Behind the campaign, dubbed by local media as the “message you couldn’t escape,” was Gary Mueller, creative director at Milwaukee advertising agency BVK Inc.

Months before, Mueller had been approached by a representative of the Shaken Baby Association Inc., a grassroots organization founded by parents whose children were shaken by their caregivers, resulting in head trauma. The group asked Mueller to develop a campaign that would raise awareness of the traumatic, often fatal, effects of shaking babies – a message that was powerful, effective and unforgettable. And, given the group’s limited budget, it had to be done without any money.

It would become the first of many such assignments Mueller would take on: raising awareness of social issues, bringing taboo topics to the forefront, pushing the envelope of traditional advertising strategies and doing it all on a shoestring.

The following year, Mueller founded Serve Marketing, an all-volunteer, nonprofit ad agency that has produced some of Milwaukee’s edgiest campaigns. Those who have seen them will likely remember them.

The human trafficking awareness campaign in which vending machines on high-traffic sidewalks appeared as though young teenage girls were trapped inside. The teenage pregnancy awareness campaign that plastered jarring images of teenage boys with bulging pregnant bellies, along with the headline, “It shouldn’t be any less disturbing when it’s a girl. Teen pregnancy. Don’t ignore it” – on billboards, bus shelters and buses.

The teenage sexting awareness campaign that posted an illustration of an unrolled condom over a cell phone with the headline, “Please practice safe text” at bus stops.

The statutory rape awareness radio ad campaign that began with the words: “Hello, rapist. You don’t mind if I call you that because that’s what you are.”

Serve operates on the premise that to tackle big problems, you have to get your audience’s attention.

“You get positive and negative reactions,” said Laura Gainor, executive director of Serve. “But we want that because we want people talking.”

The idea behind Serve came as an epiphany while Mueller was sitting in church one Sunday in July 2002.

At the time, Mueller had been gunning to become partner at BVK and was a little frustrated it hadn’t happened yet. He had been taking on pro bono cases for nonprofits, including the shaken baby campaign, but was motivated to do so not so much out of virtue, but because it meant an opportunity to do good creative work.

The message resonated with Mueller that morning, as the pastor exhorted the congregation to use their talents and treasures to give back, and not just for their own personal gain.

“About five minutes into the sermon, I kind of stopped listening and got the whole idea of ‘This is what you’re supposed to be doing with your life,’” Mueller said.

A Serve Marketing campaign raises awareness of the connection between animal abuse and child abuse.

Down to some very specific details, Mueller walked out of the church with a thorough plan for Serve, including the kind of compensation sacrifices he would have to make to launch a nonprofit, all-volunteer agency. The mission would be to “shine a light on underserved organizations,” work with clients no one else was willing to take on, talk about issues no one wants to talk about and work on causes that are the toughest to crack. And to do everything for free.

“Everything in my life was preparing me to do it,” Mueller said. “I was more concerned with winning awards, making money, all the wrong stuff. Up to that point, I was just on the wrong mission.”

The next day, Mueller approached his boss at BVK with a three-page plan, in which Mueller agreed to give up any future partnership at the agency and forgo a raise for 10 years. In return, he asked that BVK fund two full-time positions at Serve and allow access to all of the agency’s resources.

They shook on it.

“And that was it,” Mueller said. “I never questioned it.”

Serve opened its first office on Milwaukee Street with two employees, an account person and executive director, with Mueller volunteering his time while working full-time as executive creative director at BVK. The office has since relocated to Walker’s Point.

The rest of the work is done by volunteers, including writers, art directors, strategic planners, social media managers, photographers, videographers and editors. At any given time, Serve has a volunteer pool of more than 50 people. Many of those volunteers work at BVK, which donates more than $1 million in time, resources and funds annually to the nonprofit work.

While Serve has never had a shortage of willing volunteers, the biggest challenge is producing campaigns with limited financial resources. When Serve teamed up with the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee to launch the vending machine campaign, for example, it took some creativity to pull off.

“We had to get donated vending machines, find movers to haul the machines around for free, or who we’d hire for free lunch,” Mueller said. “You’re begging and borrowing and bartering with people to get it done and hoping media will come tell the story.”

Serve’s approach to advertising can also be a hard sell at times.

“Some boards didn’t understand it,” he said. “I had to do more work upfront with these boards and meet with them and explain how this kind of work works better than safe, traditional work.”

Dana World-Patterson, who has worked with the firm on public awareness campaigns as chair of the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee, said the bold messaging strikes the right tone. 

“Sex trafficking – even though it’s an underground network – really, it’s hidden in plain sight,” World-Patterson said. “It’s all around. It’s a dirty subject. It’s hard. So I don’t mind that in-your-face campaign. The in-your-face, but subtle approach is perfect.”

The results from several Serve campaigns bear that out.

In 2006, when the agency teamed up with United Way of Greater Milwaukee on the teenage pregnancy cause, reports showed Milwaukee had the second-highest rate of birth to teens in the nation.

Serve deployed several awareness campaigns with a specific aim of showing teens the cost of having a baby at that age. Campaign gimmicks included mailing fake tax bills to residents saying they owed the city $92,000, and putting graffiti messages on walls around the city that encouraged teens to call a number to “have a good time,” which led them to a voice message that listed the consequences of teen pregnancy.

The nontraditional tactics got results. The teenage pregnancy rate in Milwaukee decreased 65 percent between 2006 and 2016.

Not all campaigns have been as successful, though. Mueller has a hard time shaking them.

“I’ll be haunted forever by all the stuff that has failed,” Mueller said. “I’ve done seven or eight co-sleeping campaigns and the co-sleeping rate is still horrific. Babies are still dying … I’ve done foster care campaigns that have increased parents inquiring by 415 percent in a year and some that have only increased it by 50 percent. They weren’t as powerful. They weren’t as strong. I didn’t do a good enough job.”

This many years in, and Mueller still feels a little nervous before the launch of every campaign, unsure how people will react to it. But, he said, that just means it’s going to have an impact.

“A lot of times we’re tearing a Band-Aid off of an issue,” he said. “There are people who don’t want you to talk about this stuff, but you can’t fix it if you don’t talk about it.”

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Lauren Anderson
Lauren Anderson covers health care, nonprofits, education and insurance for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism, history and African studies. In her free time, Lauren enjoys spending time with family and friends and seeing live music wherever she can.