I Survived a Nightmare, Yet I Remain Confident in the Power of Compassion

At 83, an agency owner says marketers must champion human rights

Shelley Stewart, owner of Alabama's o2ideas, witnessed his mother's murder and became homeless at age 7. - Credit by Courtesy of 02ideas.
Headshot of Shelley Stewart

If the advertising industry wants to carve out a new role in our society, there is a way.

Now more than ever, our world needs a beacon that can guide us to greater peace, justice and equality for all people.

After more than 50 years in the agency business, overlapped with my 83 years of experiencing life from a broad spectrum of tragedy and success, I feel there appears to be no other single industry powerful enough to collectively change hearts and minds.

And this is the change we need—human rights. The advertising industry’s new role should be that of advocacy for human rights. We should guide our clients, our employees and communities into the unrelenting devotion of valuing all people based on the single cherished fact that we all share a common humanity.

Let me explain.

I was only 5 years old when I watched my father murder my mother with an axe. Here was an uneducated, angry man ending the life of an innocent, loving mother.

We lived in a black neighborhood near Birmingham, Alabama. The police wouldn’t even look for my mother’s killer. The life of a black woman at that time just wasn’t worth much.

After another two years of torturous abuse from family members, with my brothers and me sleeping on a mattress on an outdoor back porch and being fed rats, I found myself homeless.

As a 7-year-old wandering across Red Mountain into Birmingham, I miraculously found myself in the same horse stable with my older brother who had “escaped” our abusive father months before.

Then came the unlikely embrace from a white family. A local businessman named Clyde Smith, along with his wife and daughter, took me into their home, where by day I walked to the Irondale Colored School and at night I ate and slept as an accepted family member.

At an early age, I knew firsthand the power of human relationships, how the respect of another human being is critical to our survival on all levels.

Later, in the 1960s, as a society, we made a grave mistake. The media led us to believe that the blacks of that era wanted “civil rights.” So, it was then and since labeled the “Civil Rights Movement.” I have documents that disprove that the movement was only about “civil” rights. The organizers of our day said that “we will commit civil disobedience in order to secure human rights for all people.”

It wasn’t just about having the right to vote, ride on a bus or sit at a lunch counter. It was about being understood and respected as human beings, period.

When I co-founded my agency (what is now o2ideas) in 1967, my business partner was the late Cy Steiner, a man who happened to be Jewish. Together, he and I built an agency that worked across what we felt were superficial racial and cultural lines. It was unheard of at the time. I believe o2’s success over five decades has been due to this fundamental human rights viewpoint. Every day here in Birmingham, o2ideas practices human rights in the birthplace of what has been branded the “civil” rights movement.

Why and how should the advertising industry commit to human rights?

Our brand storytelling should be predicated on the value of all people. That means guarding against the temptation to paint other people in a negative light.

First, it’s the right thing to do—for our industry, our country and our planet. We collectively have a powerful role in what people see and think about the brands we represent.

Our brand storytelling should be predicated on the value of all people. That means guarding against the temptation to paint other people in a negative light compared to what we are advertising or promoting. Throughout history, our craft has succeeded in creating countless straw enemies where we disparage and criticize others through thinly cloaked humor or downright ugliness. It’s time to turn that around. We can’t make our clients better by de-humanizing their competitors.

Instead, let’s tell those stories of brands that intuitively go against the grain and purposefully lift people up, regardless of their beliefs, traits and lot in life.

Secondly, we can “lead from the back.”

As a young U.S. Air Force recruit, I had a sergeant who taught us to march in formation. I noticed that he was never in front of our unit. He always droned the cadence from the rear of the pack. One day I had the courage to ask him why he did that. He responded, “I can lead from the back, not just the front.” His voice had more influence from the rear than if he were at the front of the line. It’s the same way with advertising agencies. We should be the trusted advisers lending our voice and conscience to our clients. We should guard our position of knowing audiences and their essential humanity.

Finally, we should “listen to learn, talk to teach.”

That means we must be the great listeners of our society. Stephen Covey said it another way: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Once we have insights by listening, then we can teach these to our clients and help them tell their brand stories in compelling ways. This is a strength we can grow as well as any consulting firm or data company. It’s what we should be doing anyway for our clients.

Championing human rights sounds easy. We each may think we’re good at it, and that we are already doing it. But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

When you are dependent on client revenue, the temptation is to go along with the flow and with whatever seems clever or catchy for the moment. It will take all of us working together for the greater good of our industry and world to consistently focus on the rights of all individuals to be heard, respected and, yes, loved.

Our industry has the power and the intellect. Now we need the will to do it.


Shelley Stewart is founder of Alabama-based agency o2ideas.
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