Brown Bread projects, left to right: Broad-ly Speaking, Auckland Art Gallery/Save Our Gallery, Christchurch Art Gallery/Back The Bull

The B Corp certified agency driving the biggest campaigns to save the arts

Every week on The Primer we ask a local business or product to introduce themselves in eight simple takes. This week we talk to Jo Blair, founder and director of Brown Bread – a marketing and communications agency from Christchurch that focuses on championing the arts, philanthropy and social good. 

ONE: How did Brown Bread start and what was the inspiration behind it?

I founded Brown Bread with my husband Alistair Blair in 2013. I’d worked for not-for-profits for 10 years and found myself always gravitating towards finding partners and collaborations to deliver better events, festivals and marketing platforms.  My husband and I used to use ‘brown bread’ as code when we travelled – a word for something that smacked of cool, wholesomeness, generosity and the unconventional. So we thought: ‘Let’s only work for clients that are brown bread’.

It all started with a bull. In 2013, Jenny Harper (former Christchurch Art Gallery director) got in touch with me as she was trying to work out how she could raise over $1 million to secure Michael Parekowhai’s Chapman’s Homer for Christchurch – an artwork that had visited the city and sat on the edge of the red zone following his Venice Biennale presentation. The work quickly became a symbol of hope and bravery for Christchurch during that time.

Brown Bread (a one-woman band back in those days!) instigated a strategy to raise the funds with the Gallery’s Foundation. This included a $206,000 crowdfunding campaign Back the Bull – a PledgeMe national record at the time – which resulted in a meaningful piece of art for Christchurch, collectively bought by the city and its supporters.

Five years on, Brown Bread has grown into three departments: philanthropy and partnerships, communications and engagement, and events and activations. We work across a range of sectors (commercial and not-for-profit) to connect communities, build meaningful movements and empower good businesses to do even better

“My husband and I used to use ‘brown bread’ as… a word for something that smacked of cool, wholesomeness, generosity and the unconventional.” – Jo Blair (Photo: Facebook/Broad-ly Speaking)

TWO: Did you have any interest/experience in business or entrepreneurship prior to starting Brown Bread?

I have two siblings who run their own small businesses, and my parents did too. So without really realising it, business was in my blood.

I have an appetite for adversity and risk. I didn’t realise betting yourself to raise funds to deliver something for a community was actually really entrepreneurial. So while I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur, I guess I’ve been operating as a social entrepreneur for years.

THREE: What makes you different from other marketing/communications agencies out there?

We believe in earning attention. Anyone can pay for attention, but when you earn it, it counts for so much more. So we’re hustlers, influencers and movement makers.

Old ways don’t open new doors – our approach is never traditional. We take on projects that others steer clear of. If it hasn’t been done before, we want in on it. We’ll embrace the ‘oh shit’ moments along the way, and so far, we’ve come out of it alive (and hungry for more).

We work collaboratively with our clients and their communities, grow ideas together to ensure our shared mission is achieved. Most of the time, our clients become some of our closest friends. We’re all about keeping it human.

Michael Parekowhai’s Chapman’s Homer in Christchurch (Photo: brownbread.co.nz)

FOUR: What do you look for in a client? Are you selective about the types of people/companies you work with?

We’ve got a checklist to keep our projects aligned with our values and what we know works. It’s to ensure we’re not stepping over into any white bread territory (no offence, Tip Top).

We ask ourselves every time – does the project have an edge of impossibility? Do we get a rush from the greater idea? Will it stretch, challenge, connect and develop us? Will it make a change in the community? Is there a good leader behind it with a clear social purpose? Is the client nice and kind?!

FIVE: I also understand that you host events like Broad-ly Speaking. Can you tell me more about that and what other types of events you’ve hosted in the past?

We started Broad-ly Speaking in response to a noticeable gap in the conversations women were having. Women’s events were mainly focussed on women in a corporate or entrepreneurial environment.  We wanted to create an event that invited all women to be together and hear other women simply ‘tell it as it is’. A diverse line-up of bold and empowering women speak for just four minutes each and we put on a good spread of local food, wines and gin. It’s good, intimate and real.

With the last five Christchurch events selling out in just a few days, we decided to take the event to Auckland in March this year, and we’re returning with another gathering happening on Wednesday 12 September (there’s still a few tickets available).

We’ve recently added a new layer to the event series, with the first edition of Hard-ly Speaking (for men) held in Christchurch just recently. This time, six men spoke about being a man in 2018 – again, for just four minutes.  The speed factor tends to bring out an honesty and rawness that you don’t usually see at these things. My husband MC’d the conversation that inspired new ideas of masculinity. It was amazing and we’ll do it again, and take it elsewhere we think. The speakers were recorded so you can watch videos on the website.

We do a lot of our own community stuff like this as part of our B Corp commitment (like producing two great public works of art for Christchurch and driving a conversation around the arts in general). B Corp is an international accreditation system that gives validation that you are doing business for good – good for your community, your people and your environment.  It’s hard to get and hard to renew, but it’s a good mirroring exercise to make sure we’re walking the talk.

“Women’s events were mainly focussed on women in a corporate or entrepreneurial environment.  We wanted to create an event that invited all women to be together” (Photo: Facebook/Broad-ly Speaking)

SIX: What have been some of your favourite and/or most successful projects you’ve worked on so far? 

Christchurch Art Gallery Foundation’s TOGETHER community was formative for us as a business. It’s where we set out to build a new (and surprisingly young) community to help buy five great works for the city to mark the five years the Gallery had to close (as well as create a $5 million endowment to protect us against any unfortunate funding cuts). We learnt about philanthropy in New Zealand, brought on some good sponsors and smashed some crowdfunding records. We’ve raised over $8.5 million already and are now supporting the new director to back New Zealand artists to produce ambitious collaborative art projects that will build their audiences even more.  A new big art party, Art Do, will kick this off on October 27 which will see 60 of New Zealand’s visual artists joining our supporters and anyone who loves art, food and fashion.

Working with Kim Paton and her team and board at Objectspace was another hair-raising, unprecedented, yet super rewarding voyage.  We were tasked to build a community of givers to bring in just under $1 million in 8 months to help Objectspace move buildings. A year later, we’re still with them following their move to the award-winning new RTA designed gallery space in Grey Lynn. We chose to work with them due to their courage, ambition and the long overdue need for a gallery to exist in New Zealand where design, craft and architecture could be discussed. Our instincts were proven right and we’re now loving the programme of shows they’re cranking out.

Then there are socially driven businesses. We’ve worked with Kathmandu to activate their relationship with its founding city, Christchurch, as well as its namesake, Kathmandu. These are two cities that have experienced seismic shifts and regeneration.  We brought to life the work of a Nepalese street artist along with one of Christchurch’s, Wongi, in an awesome daytime event to help showcase where the company has come from, and where it gives its heart and support. Lion Breweries is another business experimenting with meaningful business, and chose Christchurch to launch The Fermentist – an almost 100% sustainable new micro-brewery that does business and makes beer in an exclusively ‘good’ way.

We’re constantly evolving, so no project is ever the same – we’re humbled by those who find us and want to collaborate with us.

Street mural activation between Nepalese street artist, Shradda Shresta, and local street artist Wongi Wilson. (Photo: brownbread.co.nz)

SEVEN: Do you have any other plans to scale/grow further and if so, what are they?

We’re now a team of 12 and we’re open to growing, but not for growth’s sake. We’re doing a lot more work nationally and with more commercial businesses (not just not-for-profit) to help them understand the power of giving back and engaging whole communities in a socially driven mission.  We’re not big on five-year business plans, but what we do know is that we want to grow generosity in New Zealand, and if Brown Bread grows as that grows, then we know we’re heading in the right direction. We trust that it’ll evolve.

EIGHT: Lastly, tell us about a New Zealand start-up or business that you really admire right now.

We love Hipgroup – a group of Auckland restaurants that operate organically and with a sophistication and access that makes doing any meal of the day when we’re in Auckland pretty pleasant. Jackie Grant is a true leader – we’ve partnered with her to help build the Objectspace community. We approached her because her establishments speak to Objectspace’s design, craft and architectural values 100%. She’s given without question, offering incredible generosity to ensure we have a well-fed growing community of supporters to make the gallery the best it can be. It’s people like Jackie (who give because they believe in the cause, not for what they get in return) that makes us get up in the morning.

And then there are companies like Good Nature that just astound us. Super cool design, helping fight for conservation, exporting and solving grand problems – a great New Zealand company. They’ve started a backyard revolution, and while we haven’t met them (yet) we love the cut of their jib.


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