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‘He's a strategist, not a bank robber’: could the ex-con community become ad land's secret weapon?

Marketing is crying out for diversity of thought – can the solution be found not in elusive talent pipelines, but behind bars in the here and now?

Vincent Bragg is, by all accounts, a successful businessman. He’s a chief executive and entrepreneur with multiple companies under his name and multiple media moguls in his address book.

The resumes of his employees Toni Welch and Thomas Kurdy are no less impressive: a founder of a non-profit and a production company respectively, they are educated creatives with connections in high places.

But, like Bragg, their official CVs list an extracurricular activity: time spent in jail.

Kurdy received 96 months for methamphetamine distribution. Welch was handed 57 for helping to launder $300m of mafia cash. And Bragg, the former marketing chief of XRadio Media, was sentenced to 121 months for running a multi-million-dollar drug empire.

The trio’s stories are dramatic, but not wholly unusual in modern America. According to the NAACP, one in every 37 adults in the US – 2.7% of the population – is under some form of correctional supervision, while African-Americans are incarcerated at five times more the rate of white citizens.

In total, the US houses 21% of the world’s prisoners, despite making up just 5% of the global population.

This swelling community of the incarcerated is not comprised entirely of villains, scroungers and those who deliberately wish ill on society. The reasons people commit crimes – and get sentenced for crimes – are complex, and often directly tied to the country’s socio-ethnic problems at large. Greed, addiction, institutionalized racism and lack of opportunity are common factors pulling the criminal strings.

That is to say, if creatives can be found in the urban comprehensive schools of South London and the kitchens of downtown LA, then creatives can be found in jail.

Some of the world’s biggest artists have served time, so much so that entire epochs of music have been directly influenced by prison culture. Curtis Jackson, Bragg points out, honored the 1980s Brooklyn robber 50 Cent with his choice of pseudonym, while Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley both made their marks translating the incarcerated experience into the language of rock and roll, despite never being locked up themselves.

According to Bragg, the creative tradition continues.

“I've seen so many individuals teach themselves how to paint in prison,” he says. “I've seen individuals [bleed the dye] off Skittles and make paint out of it. I’ve seen them draw on envelopes and make picture frames out of potato chip bags.

“There's so much creativity behind prison walls – so it was a no-brainer to really develop a business model and see how this creativity could be shared with the world.”

Bragg’s business model eventually became ConCreates – a creative agency powered by current and former prisoners. He developed the idea while serving time and crossing paths with inmates he came to know not by their crimes, but by their potential job roles in an industry context.

There was the drug dealer whose understanding of logistics would make him the perfect managing director. There was the former congressman whose charisma and understanding of PR would see him slide easily into a chief communications role. And then there was the “the last original con creator" – a man who successfully robbed 27 banks.

“I don't look at him as a bank robber – I look at him as a strategist, someone who created a plan and executed it successfully 27 times,” says Bragg. “That's a natural skill set we can repurpose and put into a space that could actually foster a career path.

"I know brands that would pay him better than a doctor for the title of a brand strategist.”

ConCreates was officially launched when Bragg left prison in 2016. His idea was initially supported by the non-profit Defy Ventures, which helps formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs launch enterprises.

He quickly joined forces with his business partner Janeya Griffin – a technology transfer specialist at Nasa, the co-founder of a consulting firm for entrepreneurs, and the daughter of incarcerated parents. The duo has since worked to establish a network of nearly 800 creatives comprising ex-convicts and those still inside prison, with ‘ConCreator’ recruiters tasked with headhunting prime talent on the inside.

Once inside the network, incarcerated creatives are passed client briefs predominantly through the prison email system, although telephones and visitation hours are still useful to the agency. Remuneration works on a tiered scale: ConCreators are paid a basic wage for their initial response, more if this is taken to the client, and even more if their idea is put into production.

Crucially, the company pays its creatives fairly – offering a salary well beyond the 17 cents-per-hour rates presented to prisoners manufacturing goods for well-known corporations across the country.

ConCreates also operates a 10% profit-sharing model across its network, and is open and flexible with regards to payment methods.

“We can pay their family, we can pay their restitution if they owe it or we can put money directly into their [prison] account if need be,” explains Bragg. “That choice is their decision."

As their network grew, Bragg and Griffin eventually wound up on the doorstep of Tim Jones, the executive strategy director of 72andSunny New York. The agency was, Jones says, already deep in its mission to “expand and diversify the creative classes”, but believed “we're going to have the biggest impact by helping set up other businesses like ConCreates, which ... is going to help us achieve our goals and industry goals way faster than we ever could do by ourselves.”

“There are lots of initiatives going on to try and fix the [diversity and inclusion] pipeline,” he says. “That's great – but what are we going to do in the meantime? Right now, we need more authentic voices, and this is one way for agencies to tap into those.”

Yet not one of the six holding companies and three independent networks The Drum spoke to divulged their policy on hiring employees with a criminal record. Some cited privacy and GDPR issues; most responded with sheer and telling bewilderment. Even 72andSunny failed to confirm if it would hire a formerly incarcerated marketer.

But, rather than recruiting talent directly out of ConCreates, the agency has signed itself up as the organization’s development partner. It’s helped establish the ConCreates brand identity and positioning, and shared business resources such as cred decks.

Eventually, the two plan to collaborate on client projects, too, agreed on the notion that everyone deserves a second chance.

“Everyone needs to draw a moral line around whether they're OK to work with a company like ConCreates, but ultimately, we believe one bad decision shouldn't define a lifetime,” says Jones. “If these people have paid their debt to society, or are in the process of paying their debt to society, we think we owe it to them to provide them with opportunities to learn and develop.

“One of the core beliefs of the company is that creativity without opportunity is criminality. This whole business is about affording opportunity to highly creative people so they can apply that creativity in the right way.”

A principle central to the partnership is staying true to this belief when working will all incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals – no matter what their crime.

Would a murderer be given the opportunity to pitch on a brief?

Bragg admits the question regarding where to draw the line is a “tough” one with no “on-line answer".

He explains, however, that while prison culture organically prevents “certain types” of criminals from joining the network, the nature of most crimes is largely immaterial to the spirit of ConCreates.

“We’re not in the position to determine guilt or innocence,” he states. “There's plenty of evidence out there of people being wrongfully accused. Our job is to bring creativity to the world and show the world that creativity can be found in this unlikely place."

Jones is aware this philosophy of benevolent forgiveness across the spectrum of crime may not sit well with everybody – including clients. It’s a matter he and his agency have “wrestled” with, but eventually came to terms with on the basis of principle.

“I think ‘everyone’ needs to mean everyone in this context, and one crime shouldn't define a lifetime,” he says. “Ultimately, that's the value of the company and the value we're going to stick to.

“We understand that might not be a value everyone can get on board with and that's OK. We understand that might even be a business limiter in the future. But we have to decide what comes first.”

He closes the conversation with the old William Bernbach quote – one that’s been thrown around rather liberally in today’s era of brand purpose.

“What they say is true – a principle really isn’t a principle until it costs you something.”

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