July 24, 2013
Second chances at Beit T’Shuvah’s creative company
High turnover is typical in the competitive Los Angeles marketing industry, but at BTS Communications, it has little to do with burnout. About 80 percent of interns and staff are hired full time or find work at another creative company after a six- to 12-month stint.
The other 20 percent? They relapse to an addiction and have to leave.
As a marketing and design firm affiliated with the drug and addiction treatment center Beit T’Shuvah, BTS Communications is populated almost exclusively with people who have struggled with serious drug, alcohol and other addictions. Some have been convicted of crimes and have served time in jail. Many are estranged from their families.
But these interns and staff members who join BTS Communications to work in graphic design, photography, copywriting and more say that their experience there has given them the hope, meaning and practical skills necessary to gain a new lease on life.
“It’s given the residents hope that they can learn something. It’s given them a way of expressing their own creativity and artistic talent. It’s helped them learn how to write and be of service to other nonprofits, so that now they’re learning how to put their talents together and use them to serve somebody else,” said Beit T’Shuvah COO and Senior Rabbi Mark Borovitz.
The beginnings of the enterprise go back more than two years, to when John Sullivan, a resident with an art background, told Beit T’Shuvah staff that their marketing materials could use improvement. He volunteered to help, and soon took charge of designing all communications materials for the facility near Culver City. Eventually he hired several interns from Beit T’Shuvah, most of whom had art experience, to help him, and began recruiting additional clients and charging them for marketing work.
To help pay for equipment and office space less than a mile from Beit T’Shuvah, BTS secured a $250,000 grant from The Jewish Community Foundation as part of its Cutting Edge Grants program, paid over a three-year period. Sullivan, its co-founder and creative director, also won the L.A. Social Innovation Fast Pitch competition, beating out dozens of nonprofit ventures to receive $12,500 for BTS.
Now the agency is poised to bring in $400,000 of business this year. Close to 70 percent of that is from outside clients, with the remaining work coming from Beit T’Shuvah, according to Lon Levin, president of BTS, and one of two employees who are not current or former Beit T’Shuvah residents. (All of the interns are residents.)
“It’s grown exponentially in the last year,” said Levin, whose goal is to hit $1 million of business in the next year or two.
The agency technically is a nonprofit. After paying salaries, rent and other expenses, all profits are meant to go to Beit T’Shuvah, although it has yet to break even, according to Levin.
While many early clients were Jewish nonprofits, BTS is now branching out to secular and mainstream businesses and agencies, including Mammoth Mountain, FinditParts and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Levin, a professional illustrator/cartoonist who also has held advertising positions with Warner Bros. and Sony, said that BTS has the advantage of being able to offer quality marketing work at a bargain rate — one-half to two-thirds cheaper than a comparable marketing firm due to its low overhead, he said.
The group also is starting to specialize. Levin says BTS is developing an expertise in designing mascots and logos, and he hopes to leverage his staff’s photography talents to expand into the action sports area.
“They’re doing professional-quality work, and we were really impressed with their previous projects,” said Matt Davidson, director of programs and marketing at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Pacific Palisades.
Plus, he said, the shul would have been unable to afford a full-service marketing firm, offering copywriting, design and photography services, elsewhere. The connection to Beit T’Shuvah and its social mission were “icing on the cake,” Davidson said.
Working at BTS has been life-changing for Beit T’Shuvah residents like Kendl Ferencz, a 26-year-old woman who was the marketing agency’s first intern and is now on staff as senior art director. She said she doesn’t know if she would have stayed sober were it not for working there.
An artist from the East Coast who once was offered a scholarship to a graphic design program, Ferencz had been in and out of rehab programs for years. Whenever a program would end, she would get placed in a transitional job — such as working in a coffee shop — which she found so depressing and uninspiring that she would relapse. Working at BTS gave her hope that life could be different, she said.
“It gave me a reason to think I can be a person again,” Ferencz said. “I just thought that I had screwed up my chances.”
Her experience isn’t unique: Ferencz says she sees over and over again people coming into the agency “sad and quiet and sort of lost,” then slowly becoming inspired.
“It brings them back to life again. Treatment does that, but what happens after treatment? It’s cool to watch people come in here and totally change.”
Borovitz said it’s been a great way to help people get into non-entry-level employment, but there’s been other value, too.
“We’ve taught other nonprofits how to market themselves, and taught people that addicts aren’t just throwaways,” he said.
While Ferencz remains on staff for the time being, many residents use their skills and training to get jobs elsewhere.
Levin told the story of one employee — BTS has a staff of 10 — who once was in prison for embezzlement and drug use. He became very polished at bringing in new business for BTS, but thought he would never be able to get another job due to his background. Several months ago, he interviewed for a position at a marketing firm in Los Angeles and got the job — making three times what he was at BTS.
Levin said stories such as these are common, and that the impact this agency has on people’s lives is what attracted him to become president. Although Levin has had a prestigious career in entertainment and publishing, he said he no longer measures success financially.
“I was looking more into how can I help people; how can I do something that will be significant or change someone’s life.”