Ad agency Lowe Campbell Ewald wants to make Detroit — yes, that Detroit— the latest hub for young professionals in the creative and digital technology fields.
But could a city that declared bankruptcy less than a month and a half ago become the next Austin or San Francisco?
Touting the opportunities offered by a less crowded market and the enthusiastic support of a long-downtrodden city, Lowe Campbell Ewald creative director Iain Lanivich put out a video last month asking innovators to join him in the Motor City. LCE is moving its 600-person Michigan headquarters from a nearby suburb into the city’s downtown this winter. The company has branches in Los Angeles and San Antonio, too.
Now, he’s asking the public to help him take his message directly to the people he hopes to evangelize.
South by Southwest allows the public to vote on which speakers will lead its panels. Lanivich is campaigning to lead a discussion highlighting why young creatives and entrepreneurs should move their businesses to Detroit.
The technology and arts festival allows the public to weigh in on which speakers address the conference by considering an online vote alongside the opinion of its staff and advisory boards. Lanivich wants to present a panel outlining all Detroit has to offer young creatives and entrepreneurs.
“What I like is to work with people to create ideas and see them come to life,” Lanivich told Business Insider. “We’re hoping to bring in talent that can come up with ideas or help those ideas happen.”
Lanivich, who grew up in the Detroit area and lives in nearby Bloomfield Township, wants to use the campaign to introduce himself and his agency to the fledgling Detroit tech scene and add more creative talent to its ranks. Already, the city’s downtown area is home to Dan Gilbert’s Detroit Venture Partners and the veteran viral sensation Texts From Last Night.
Even so, the Vote for Detroit pitch is ambitious, to say the least. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 40% of the city’s residents lived below the poverty rate as of 2012. Even more financially stable residents suffer from a broken infrastructure that fails to provide adequate police coverage and public transportation.
Sarah Cox, who founded the real-estate blog Curbed Detroit when she moved to the city two and a half years ago, told Business Insider that Detroit will not be able to lure startups from hotspots like Austin and San Francisco until the city itself becomes a more hospitable place to live. For this to happen, she said, the city will not only need new businesses, but new residents to generate the tax revenues the city needs to fix everything from broken streetlights to understocked fire-safety equipment.
“It’s an interesting time, and I think the city will ultimately be better, but I think all these sort of quick-hit changes are shortsighted,” Cox said. “These problems took decades to create, and we weren’t just waiting for 600 office workers to show up so we could say ‘Oh, everything’s good now. We’re fine.”
Lanivich acknowledged the reality of the city’s many predicaments, saying that a family hoping to move within the city limits would first have to figure out where to shop for groceries and whether that location was in a safe part of town.
He said that he wants innovators at SXSW to look past the flaws of a city with a dangerous reputation and instead embrace the opportunity to grow a business in an environment devoid of Silicon Valley’s cut-throat competition and New York’s rigid corporate hierarchies.
“When you read about Detroit, there’s not much here that doesn’t need help,” Lanivich said. “It doesn’t really matter what your idea is, you can probably try it out here.”
Detroit resident Sebastian Jackson said it was these qualities that helped him develop the Social Club Grooming Company, a beauty salon that aims to bring together Detroiters of diverse backgrounds and uses the hair it cuts as fertiliser to plant trees around the city.
While Jackson admits the city’s public education system and police department are in need of a lot of work, he said an influx of entrepreneurs would be a step in the right direction toward fixing some of the problems that have plagued the city in the 14 years he’s lived there.
“All the social capital you need is in Detroit right now,” Jackson said. “I perceived the Vote for Detroit campaign as showing people that they can actually help rebuild one of the nation’s greatest cities and, at the same time, make money doing it.”
“I’m not saying Detroit is perfect right now,” Lanivich said. “But it’s at a point where maybe the right people can make it great.”
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