United Way

When people ask what my most meaningful piece of work is, I often point to this. While I believe it’s a great film on its own, the backstory of its production lends it a bit more weight.

It was our third year working with the United Way of Kansas City. At that time, UWKC would rotate their account between area agencies so as not to overburden any single shop with too much pro bono work. In other words, this was our final year. Naturally, we wanted to go out with a campaign that would be difficult for the next agency to beat (although that would actually have fine since it would’ve meant more success for the client, but still). But let’s back up a bit first.

[Wow, this is long. Just show me the film already.]

We had already had great success in years one and two. When the client first approached us, they said their main problem was that most people perceived them as a single charity, not as a means of donating to dozens of local organizations with one gift. During that first meeting, I wrote down “One for all.” on my note pad – a line that summarized their mission while being memorable due to its association with the Three Musketeers. It took a little bit of selling internally, but the line eventually stuck. For the first year, due to timing and budget issues, we decided to use the campaign film created by the national office – it fortuitously featured folks from KC †“and focus on TV spots. (The campaign film was a piece that was shown at corporate gatherings just before employees were asked to fill out their payroll-deduction donation cards for the year.) Featuring actual people who were served by UW-affiliated agencies, the TV spots spun visual vignettes – not telling any single individual’s full story, but giving enough of a hint of what they were going through to have some emotional heft. Voice over in the style of Linda Hunt drove home the “help them all with one gift” message. Everything went well, including donations. There was much rejoicing.

For year two, we knew we’d be on the hook to produce the campaign film. Typically, such a piece would focus on a few people or families, sharing their stories via interviews and b-roll. Nothing particularly wrong with that approach if you can find people who have powerful tales and the ability to communicate them on camera. But that’s always a big if. Besides, we reasoned, hadn’t everyone in town basically seen a variation on the same spiel year after year after year? Indeed, they had. So we opted to try a new tack. We would still feature people who were helped by the United Way, but their stories would be told by a combination of visuals and supers (text superimposed over the images for you normal people out there). All played out under an original song written and recorded just for this piece. That’s right, we made a music video. And it worked beautifully (thank goodness), driving donations and managing to snag a couple decent awards. 

At last, I have rambled us into year three. As I mentioned above, we really wanted to do something extra-special in our final year of service. We decided to stick with the music video style and use what we had learned from the previous year’s productions to make this ultimate piece truly, well, ultimate. We called in every production favor we could legitimately lay claim to (every year’s productions was pro bono with only hard costs like, gasp, film being paid for) and went to work. 

While my partner Suba Nadarajah (now killing it at VMLY&R) set about creating a design aesthetic for the campaign, I focused on writing the song. I eventually hammered out the lyrics and a melody, at which point we turned things over to Steve Zoloto and Brando Triantafillou at (the sadly now defunct) Rhythm Cafe in Chicago to flesh it out. Steve Z. eventually flew down to Kansas City to record vocals at Wheeler Audio with a singer named Wes Cunningham. We also recorded local church choir (again, my memory fails me) for backing tracks, which was quite a treat.

Meanwhile, we had been scouting for people to feature. We settled on four main stories, including that of a pair of elderly Italian sisters, Anna and Minnie, who just happened to be my neighbors. Only they had lived in the neighborhood their entire lives instead of just a couple years as I had. Everyone involved was great to work with, and I often wonder what became of them. But, again, my memory fails and I have no production book from the shoot, so even Googling what I can recall has proven fruitless.

Anyway. Brad Slaughter at Bark Productions stepped in as the production company. We hired an out-of-town director/cinematographer, Mark Kohl, to lens the effort. (The first two years’ campaigns were filmed by KC-based director Michael Dali, and many of his shots were used as b-roll in this piece.) The two-day shoot went off about as well as one could hope, and we finished editing in early August set for a September campaign launch.

Did I mention the year was 2001?

That’s right. The United Way of Kansas City had, for many years, launched its annual campaign in September. Obviously, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, that plan changed. The biggest concern for our client was not one of timing (although that was still important). After 9/11, people across the country gave generously to organizations like the Red Cross and Salvation Army in efforts to help their friends and fellow citizens thousands of miles away. Which was great. Unless you were about to ask them for even more money. Which the Unite Way absolutely had to do as they helped support over 150 charities in the greater Kansas City area. Fortunately, Midwesterners are a generous sort. When the campaign finally rolled out the following spring, the client reported that the campaign film was a huge hit – driving even UAW works at the local Ford plant to tears – and that Anna and Minnie, who had volunteered to tour area businesses with the client, had become starts to boot. In the end, the United Way not only achieved their goal of (I think) $43 million, but tacked another couple of million on top of that.

Not bad for a bunch of corporate shills.

Credits:
CW/lyrics: Jason Fox
AD: Subashini Nadarajah
CD: Steve Wood
Director: Mark Kohl
Additional Footage: Michael Dali
Agency Producer: Tonya Dill
Production Co.: Bark Productions
Music: Steve Zoloto and Brando Triantafillou
Lead Singer: Wes Cunningham
Audio Post: Wheeler Audio
Audio Engineer: Jim Wheeler
Editorial Post: Take Two Productions
Editor: Brian Hicks
Smoke: Michael Ong

The above version of this film was remastered by myself in March 2020, converting it from SD to HD. While I was able to fix color issues, redo the ending logo, etc., the titles are necessarily original and hence a bit soft. 

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