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Mind over Matter: Practicing Buddhism in Advertising

Kerry Clarkson | Dec 13, 2017

At first glance, Buddhism and Advertising seem to rub each other the wrong way. But Buddhism itself is a tightrope act of opposites.

It’s a practice of the mind, to allow it ease while also build its strength as the conductor. A powerful conductor creates harmony where there is discord. So a practicing Buddhist will not seek to escape reality, but to harmonize the challenges of life through immersion. Entering into life fully and mindfully means we can make an impact.

In a common Buddhist anecdote the initiate asks the master, “What did you do before you became enlightened?” He responded,“Chop wood, carry water.” “What did you do after you became enlightened?” Again, “Chop wood, carry water.” This deceptively simple story illustrates that expansion of consciousness can be extended into what we already know, unexpected as it may be.

Rob Holzer is a practicing Buddhist “adman” and lives this principle in action. He found time to sit and talk us through Matter Unlimited, his (anti) ad agency that builds strategic and creative platforms for like-minded companies, foundations, and nonprofits. In simple terms we could call Matter an ‘agency for good.’ Matter harnesses the ill-appropriated power of persuasion and uses this as a tool for change. They elevate advertising to both a commercial and “kind” art… two forces often found in contemporary antagonism. Creatives across all fields are familiar with this paradox, sacrificing ideals to accept commercial projects not aligned with their values. This exchange might later fund personal projects that fill the soul, but not the bank. Can’t we have it both ways? Rob believes this equilibrium is changing, not just for advertising but for the economy, and Matter is at the forefront of this paradigm shift.

Rob says we are experiencing the early onset of the “purpose-led economy”, where business will be able to create positive impact without a loss. This transition state reinvigorates oppressed values like hope for justice and equality, stimulating the belief that our system can change.

Rob’s vision has a clarity that comes from the heart. But synchronizing his internal and external agenda is something that evolved over time. Before Matter, he pioneered digital strategies in the tech infancy of the 90’s, creating an integrated agency when this was still a new field. After selling this agency in 2007, Rob went through a personal crisis, losing his company, marriage and best friend at the same time. As extreme moments of change tend to do, this transformation led him to contemplate his path and purpose.

With the broad purpose in sight, Rob now needed the “how”. In keeping with the unorthodox nature of his mission, Rob’s career future was manifested to him in the literal form of a dream, while on a retreat in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

Matter is still riding high off that dream. As more system-disruption enters the economy, Matter propels it forward utilizing tech and social media for fresh stories. One of his favorite projects was a Merck campaign for their Merck For Mothers initiative – a 10-year $500 million dollar commitment from the company to help end maternal mortality. As their creative Agency of Record, Matter launched a Virtual Reality film at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and revamped their brand’s narrative platform. While the campaign received industry recognition for innovative storytelling, winning 2 Cannes Lions and 5 Clios for the work, Rob recognizes the true value lies in the lives that were saved now that the program is expanding, in part due to Matter’s work in spreading the brand’s message and reach.

Going forward, Matter is ready to solve the broadest issues we face worldwide. International climate change, domestic racial equity and social inequality is on the horizon. With such major dreams, Rob’s advice for change-makers is still small and rooted firmly in everyday life:

“It comes down to staying present. Being mindful of how each one of our choices – big and small – affects the world in some way. As we cultivate present moment awareness, we can begin to make better choices for ourselves, our families and communities, and the world at large. Its simple …yet often the hardest thing to do.”

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