The topic of diversity in American companies and advertising has gained renewed attention and commitment in 2020. While racial diversity has been at the top of mind, another type of diversity could also hold the key to transforming the fast-paced, human insight-driven world of advertising: diversity of life experience, and specifically, experience of incarceration. 

Janeya Griffin, co-founder of the creative agency ConCreates, which employs currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, puts it this way: “If you’re staring at a problem with the same set of eyes, how do you fix it? Well, you bring in a new pair of eyes to look at it—maybe someone who doesn’t have the same background as you.” Speaking to the unique skills and experiences often found in people with a criminal record, Griffin adds: “If you’re thinking about people who are committing crimes, a lot of them are committing them because they’re trying to survive, and so they’re taking nothing and turning it into something. And so that type of ingenuity, that type of genius—how do we now take that, bottle it up, and bring it into the ad space?”

Over 70 million people—nearly one third of U.S. working age adults—have a criminal record. It’s a number of people that is as large as the population with college degrees. It is also a group of people whose unique backgrounds and skills are rarely appreciated when looking for work. In particular, those who are formerly incarcerated have a hard time finding an outlet for their skills and experience, with as much as 27% of formerly incarcerated people being unemployed prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

At the same time, advertising and creative firms in America are tasked with advertising to a diverse America, yet by and large do not have diverse people working for them. For an industry whose task is to come up with divergent thinking around brands, the search for where creative talent resides is surprisingly circumscribed. 

The idea for ConCreates started when co-founder and CEO Vincent Bragg was in federal prison on drug charges. In prison, Bragg met some of the most creative people he had ever crossed paths with, despite the severe lack of access to resources in prison and the barrenness of their surroundings. One fellow inmate that he met, Joe Nickson, consulted with a cofounder of MeUndies, giving that founder ideas that would take his company from doing $50,000 in sales a month to $934,000 with only two campaigns.

Together, Bragg and Nickson had the idea to found a creative agency that would harness the ideas of people with a prison record, giving them an outlet for their creativity and getting them paid at market rate for highly respected work at the same time. After bringing on a third co-founder, Janeya Griffin, an entrepreneur and NASA technology specialist who grew up with incarcerated parents, and advisors like Tim Jones, executive strategy director at 72andSunny, their new creative agency was born. 

What does ConCreates do? The idea behind ConCreates, says co-founder Griffin, is that where society sees a bank robber, ConCreates sees a strategist. The very skill set that landed the individual in prison could, when redirected toward legal activities, become highly paid white collar work. “Creativity without opportunity is where criminality comes in,” says Griffin.

ConCreates has a network of currently and formerly incarcerated “ConCreators,” whose unique skill sets are tapped depending on the type of work that ConCreates sources. The agency uses a crowdsourcing remuneration model common in the ad industry, where people are paid for every idea they contribute to the network, and more and more as the idea progresses. This brings work, and most importantly, dignity back to reentering individuals. ConCreators have negotiated rates up to hundreds of dollars an hour for their creative work—a huge improvement over the $5.65 per month that Bragg earned doing a job while he was in prison. 

In addition to providing currently and formerly incarcerated individuals with work and pay that befits their skill sets, central to the value proposition of ConCreates is the idea that diversity is good for business, and specifically that diversity drives creativity. Research has long suggested that the presence of diversity on a team brings new perspectives and can enhance creativity and innovation. In this same way, ConCreators bring a different set of eyes to problems and give fresh takes on things. 

For example, ConCreates advisor Jones points to the initial project proposal that made ConCreates capture his attention, which involved working with the U.S. Census to encourage engagement and participation. Jones says that many Americans were suspicious of the Census at worst, and saw filling out the Census as a chore or piece of admin work at best.

“But actually, for this group, being counted is actually an act of rebellion, is an act of standing up and being counted,” says Jones. “So thinking about filling out the Census as an act of rebellion was an incredibly powerful insight or beginnings of a creative idea that I’m pretty sure would not have come out of a mainstream agency. That’s what got us on board [with ConCreates] originally.”

As co-founder Griffin says, “We’re all one decision away from having a criminal history,” referring to how easy it is for certain mundane acts, such as urinating in public, to be criminalized. With ConCreates, Griffin, Bragg, and Nickson have created a win-win for talented people deserving of a second chance, and for brands and companies needing fresh ideas to break through the noise and reach an increasingly diverse America.

Check out the Center on Global Brand Leadership’s recent talk with the co-founders of ConCreates to find out more about how they built the company and live their mission—and if you are in need of creative services, consider working with ConCreates.