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Publicity With a Conscience

Through years as Congressional staffers, Erik Lokkesmoe, Marshall Mitchell and Corby Pons came to realize that working for a politician is essentially acting as a marketer — hawking your boss’s ideas to constituents, the press and fellow lawmakers.

Whether it’s getting a candidate elected, pitching a positive story to a reporter or building a coalition to pass legislation, persuasion, message distillment and relationship-building are critical.

So when the bipartisan trio got tired of Capitol Hill, film marketing seemed an appealing way to remain involved in shaping public policy and culture.

Three months ago, Lokkesmoe, Mitchell and Pons started their own marketing company, Different Drummer, out of a row house basement around the corner from their old offices.

“We’ve all worked on political campaigns and had the experience of getting millions of people to do one thing on one day — and that’s vote,” Lokkesmoe said. “Well, in Hollywood, opening night is your election day. Going and buying your ticket is your vote at the ballot box.”

Redemptive Value

The trio isn’t out to market just anything. Lokkesmoe, Mitchell and Pons are only interested in products that reflect some of the policy concerns and values they share with each other and their former bosses. It’s what they call “socially beneficial” media.

Different Drummer’s projects to date include “Call and Response,” a soon-to-be- released “rockumentary” that calls attention to global slavery through music and testimony from politicians and celebrities. Musicians involved in the film include Talib Kweli and Five for Fighting; former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright makes an appearance as well.

“We are judicious about the clients we accept,” Mitchell said. “It has to have some redemptive value. It has to prick the conscience or trouble people who are comfortable.”

A film that is already out, “Lord Save Us From Your Followers,” documents American perceptions of Christianity. In it, the film’s director tours the country with an outfit covered in religious bumper stickers and engages passersby on Christianity; politicians and religious personalities also grant more formal interviews.

Religion (all three are Christians), urban education (both Mitchell and Pons have worked at charter schools) and human rights are among the group’s top concerns.

[IMGCAP(1)]Different Drummer markets films that the trio thinks reflect the diverse interests of today’s young adults and America’s changing political demographics.

“If you call somebody an evangelical Republican or a progressive Democrat today, you don’t really know what they believe anymore until you talk to them,” Marshall said. “Our generation is not as un-nuanced as most. You might be an evangelical Christian, but you might also be a skateboard freak.”

The trio said Hollywood has been slow to process that reality, opening up a niche for Different Drummer.

“A lot of young evangelicals showed up to watch ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’” Al Gore’s film about global warming, Pons said, but promoters “didn’t think to market it to them.”

The Capitol Hill Days

The issues explored in Different Drummer’s films have been of interest to Lokkesmoe, Mitchell and Pons since their time in Congress. Mitchell, originally from Philadelphia, started working full time in Congress for then-Rep. Bill Gray (D-Pa.) at the age of 19, while simultaneously paying his way through night classes at Howard University. He moved on to work from 1993 to 1998 for then-Rep. Floyd Flake (D-N.Y.), becoming the youngest chief of staff in the House at age 23.

Flake is an African-American from New York City whose support of school vouchers placed him at odds with many in his party. Lokkesmoe and Pons saw similar independent streaks in their former bosses, and the trio alludes to that in the title of the company.

“March to the beat of a different drummer, even if it’s a parade of only two,” said Mitchell, 38.

Pons spent two years working for Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (N.C.), one of a handful of House Republicans who has strongly criticized President Bush’s Iraq policy. Pons served as a legislative analyst, which he described as a unique position in which he handled the issues Jones was most passionate about, including Iraq. Soon after Pons came to the Hill in 2005, Jones began calling for troop withdrawals, before many Democrats.

“Congressman Jones did his duty to his constituents, which was to find out what was going on in Iraq,” said Pons, 30. “It was an example of how D.C. politics changed, but Congressman Jones didn’t allow D.C. politics to change him.”

Respecting Differences

Jones and Flake got along fabulously, Pons and Mitchell said.

“For them, the reason they were sent here was not to get seniority and get in line with the rest of the sheep,” Mitchell said. “They were fine with being a little out of step with their conferences and being renegades.”

A respect for differences and an ability to engage in conversation despite disagreements is characteristic of the partners’ working relationship, too.

“If we’re on the same page on everything, that’s actually a problem,” Pons said. “What we have in common is a willingness to listen to each other intensely.”

“We like content that can bring people together,” Lokkesmoe added, “that’s not intent on forcing people to pick sides.”

Lokkesmoe, 35, grew up in California and was press secretary for then-Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) before DeMint moved to the Senate. He joined Different Drummer from Walden Media, a firm that specializes in larger-scale social good media. There he marketed the 2006 film “Amazing Grace,” the story of William Wilberforce’s efforts in England’s parliament to end the country’s slave trade.

The film was expected to earn only roughly $3 million, according to Lokkesmoe, but wound up making $33 million worldwide. That success, he said, proves there is a market for social good media and that aggressive marketing across religious and civic groups can help such films thrive.

With the global slavery content of “Call and Response,” Pons said, groups such as Amnesty International and the United Nations can join with anti-abortion forces in an unlikely marriage to promote the film.

“We can build large coalitions. With something like global slavery, we can bring together far left and far right,” he said.

A Broad Reach

Different Drummer is working with everything from churches and colleges to nonprofits in its marketing.

Lokkesmoe said the company is “unrivaled” in its relationships with important players in those communities.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a company with our set of experiences,” Lokkesmoe said. “People know our experience and are willing to listen to us.”

Mitchell developed numerous contacts thanks to his 20-year relationship with Flake, who like Mitchell’s father, is a pastor. When Flake retired in 1998, Mitchell moved to New York City and soon started a charter school. Then in 2002 he followed Flake to Ohio’s Wilberforce University (named for William Wilberforce), America’s oldest private historically black college, after Flake became president.

Lokkesmoe and Mitchell actually met as Lokkesmoe was looking to promote “Amazing Grace” on Wilberforce’s campus.

Now, removed from politics but working out of a Capitol Hill basement, they are seeking to change culture in a way they couldn’t in Congress.

“Working on the Hill, politics is powerless to change hearts and minds,” Lokkesmoe said. “People are much more willing and able to have their hearts and minds changed by films and books and stories than by what they see on C-SPAN.”

The trio is aware that changing hearts and minds might sound like a lofty ideal for a marketing company.

“We respect our audience,” Lokkesmoe said. “Some companies care only about their client, but we work for both client and audience.”

As they go about their new line of work, they still see parallels between Congress and marketing. Mitchell likened lining up support for a film to an intern going from office to office, gathering signatures from Members of Congress adding their names to a bill.

“Nothing’s really changed for me moving from the Hill,” Pons said, “except for the fact that I build coalitions around film rather than legislation.”

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