Helping Nonprofits Tackle Social Issues with CBS EcoMedia’s Paul Polizzotto

October 25, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we are so excited to do a first. This is the first in-studio interview we’re doing here on Sirius XM. We’ve got Paul Polizzotto on with us. He’s the President and founder of CBS EcoMedia. Welcome to Green is Good and to our studio, Paul. PAUL POLIZZOTTO: What a pleasure. Thank you for having me and I love your studio. It’s beautiful. JOHN SHEGERIAN: This is so unique and we’re so honored because you are really the environmental eco-media rock star right now because you’re doing something that nobody else has ever done before, but before we get into that, we’re sitting here in New York City above Radio City, the iconic Radio City Music Hall, doing a radio show and you’re an LA guy and you grew up in the beach area, the beautiful beach area of Los Angeles. Talk a little bit about your journey, Paul, from growing up in that great part of this world to founding this very, very important eco-media platform that is intersecting both media and the important environmental issues of today and our future. PAUL POLIZZOTTO: Well, the journey started in Manhattan Beach, California, where I grew up surfing every day. To my parents’ chagrin, I’m out there surfing every day and the journey’s been quite personal. It’s a result of surfing in a polluted Santa Monica Bay. When I grew up during the late ’70s — I’m aging myself here, but Santa Monica Bay had some serious issues. It still has issues but getting better but it had some serious issues in the late ’70s and here we were growing up in this very healthy sport of surfing and we were sick all the time. We couldn’t stay well for more than three weeks to a month and I remember one time everybody was going in and getting shots, gamma globulin shots, because there was fear of hepatitis so I was surfing in this polluted Santa Monica Bay, wanted to do something about it, and in my first business, created some methods for cleaning storm drain systems, industrial sites, manufacturing facilities, and moving pollutants that would otherwise end up in Santa Monica as a result of a rain event. I created something called Urban Watershed Cleaning, a process called zero discharge, and what we were involved in doing is in some ways, changing an industry, which was that the cleaning contractors in Southern California were operating illegally. They were cleaning parking lots, industrial sites, manufacturing facilities and letting it all wash into the storm drain system and then ultimately out into Santa Monica Bay without treatment and we’re surfing in this and we’re swimming in this and we’re saying, ‘Wait a minute. Not only is this making us sick. It’s illegal,’ and so what we were involved in doing was creating some methods to legalize that industry and to remove those pollutants from entering Santa Monica Bay compliantly. It was get legal or get out and we, in some small way, changed an industry and I’m very proud of that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, so now though, when did you have the epiphany to do what you’re doing today to actually start this amazing platform, which we’ve been doing this show for four years and I’m in the recycling industry. I’ve never heard of or seen a platform like you’ve created so where did that come from? PAUL POLIZZOTTO: Well, really it was an extension of what I was doing so in the late ’90s when stormwater and urban runoff regulations became more stringent in cities around Santa Monica Bay and ultimately, California and the nation, around something called Total Maximum Daily Loads, or TMDLs, where cities were being asked to determine which pollutants and which quantities of those pollutants were taking these receiving waters from unimpaired to impaired and they started putting limits on these things and so I started looking at where those regulations were going and how I could help because cities were saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is an unfunded federal mandate. We don’t have the money to comply with the existing regulations, let alone new ones,’ and I started to look at what they were being asked to comply with. Every city has what they call an NPDES, a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit, and there’s some minimum control measure associated with those permits, community outreach and education, public participation and involvement, some of the things include pre and post construction related things, good housekeeping, elicit discharge, so I started looking at what cities were being asked to do and said, ‘Hmm, I don’t know anything about community outreach and education. I know more about the structural things,’ because those were more of my wheelhouse, and I said, ‘I got an idea. Why don’t we create the Adopt a Waterway Program? Why don’t we create a program like Adopt a Highway but we’ll call it Adopt a Waterway? I live near the ocean, right? We’ll put up signs on high traffic commercial streets saying Adopt a Waterway, cleaner streets, cleaner oceans, and we’ll put a best management practice on those signs that say, please pick up after your pets, please no dumping in storm drains, etcetera, and then we’ll have a corporate logo that allows us to raise money to fund stormwater filters, to intercept pollutants from entering the storm drain system, watershed clean up programs, increased street sweeping, etcetera,’ so essentially the communities, through those signs, were able to (1) check the box for community outreach and education. Secondly, it was public participation and involvement and then the money that we got from the corporations for the logo then funded the more structural things and we were off and running. What happened along the way was I actually created the EcoMedia, really the origins of EcoMedia as a nonprofit, and what was interesting about that was that I was coming out of a nonprofit community and I found myself taking this shrinking nonprofit pie, this charity pie, which was stressed to begin with, and dividing it into more pieces. I wasn’t doing anything additive. If I were to win a grant, theoretically a nonprofit that I thought was doing great, or I could otherwise lose a grant, so it was sort of a zero sum game so I looked at it and said, ‘You know what, what if we created an ad model whereby we work with advertisers and fund nonprofits,’ so essentially EcoMedia at the highest level in big picture is an ad model to fund nonprofits and so we’re using the ad campaigns of local and large corporations to fund nonprofits that are taking on the most urgent social issues of our time, the environment, health, and education. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Paul, you know, I’m on your website right now and it is, for our listeners out there, I want you to go to it and follow along. If you’ve got a table or some sort of device in front of you, it’s EcoMedia.com. Of course, you are now a CBS company but it’s EcoMedia.com. It’s a gorgeous website. There’s lots of interaction points here and things of that such. Give an example of what you just explained, how your platform works with regards to sponsors coming in, spending advertising dollars, funding a nonprofit to do good for the community. PAUL POLIZZOTTO: So, here it was I was involved in stormwater and urban runoff-related issues and then I got increasingly more interested in what was happening around climate change and what cities were doing around municipal climate action plans and knew that in order to raise the dollars necessary to take on these larger environmental issues, I had to get involved in other forms of media — television, radio, outdoor, interactive, the full spectrum. JOHN SHEGERIAN: All the platforms. PAUL POLIZZOTTO: And, CBS was the perfect partner because they were the only media company under one roof that had a network, local TV, radio, outdoor and interactive under one roof and advertisers, as you know, large advertisers tend to buy all platforms and that allowed me to raise the most amount of money for the nonprofits in the communities so we created three ad products; eco-ads, wellness ads and education ads, and what we do with those three products is through our eco-ads, we take a portion of the ad spends of corporations and fund solar panels on parks and schools and community centers and low-income housing projects and carry out energy-efficiency retrofits, urban reforestation, protecting rivers, lakes and streams from pollution. These are the kinds of things we’re doing with our eco-ad. Through our education ad, we’re funding after school programs, scholarships, stem programs around science and technology and engineering and math. We’re funding bulk school supplies for schools, backpacks full of school supplies for kids, even better meals for kids in schools and then through our wellness ad, we’re helping communities take on the challenges of obesity, diabetes, early detection, cardiovascular disease. We’re funding mobile health clinics. We’re working with trusts for public land to not only establish public parks but to put full fitness zones in those parks so that folks can get a full-body workout, folks that perhaps can’t afford gym memberships, and help inspire better health in communities so to give you an example, an example would be: We go to a large corporation and say, ‘Hey, tell you what, not asking you to spend more money on advertising. I know you’ve got strict limits on your budget there but we’re asking you to consider spending more of that money with CBS and if you do, we will provide you with efficient and effective media delivery,’ which is a message that produces commerce, right? That happens in any case but what we do is we take a portion of that increase and we go out and identify projects, nonprofits and community projects, that fit the brand DNA of that client and they get both and what we then do at EcoMedia is develop content around that outcome and then we use the CBS megaphone to connect the call to action campaign to the positive impact that happened in the local community so the advertiser, it’s not either/or. It’s and/and. JOHN SHEGERIAN: When did you start this? PAUL POLIZZOTTO: In 2001, EcoMedia really broadened its efforts but the origins of EcoMedia go back into the late 1990s. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Okay, so now it’s 2013 and you’ve lived through the evolution, which maybe even we can call a revolution with regards to the sustainability movement here in the United States. You were telling me something before we went on the air. It’s just so important that our listeners hear this. Your model is working so well at CBS. Share what you shared with me before that it’s the fastest growing. PAUL POLIZZOTTO: We’re the largest, fastest-growing division of CBS, which is really quite remarkable. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Isn’t it? PAUL POLIZZOTTO: Yeah, and I think really, you think about it and it’s interesting. I had an experience with CBS and I’m really enjoying. For me, I had not worked for anyone, by the way, since I was 25 years old, so I’m a career social entrepreneur and I had not worked for anyone since I was 25 years old, but I’m really enjoying myself there and I remember in one of the meetings that I had with CBS, they were talking about how content was the ability to do some things in communities and that’s true but I said I really think the power is in distribution. I think the power of CBS to really tangibly and measurably improve communities actually comes from the distribution more than the content and I said, ‘Advertising is like the sun,’ and they were like, ‘What?’ and I’m like, ‘It’s the ideas,’ and they said, ‘Well, how’s that?’ and I said, ‘Well you know, think about it. In the next hour, more energy will hit the surface of the earth from the sun than we use as a planet in an entire year, yet we think we have energy shortages.’ There’s actually no such thing as an energy shortage in the universe. All the universe is is energy. The real questions are do we have the intellect? Do we have the will to harvest the abundance that’s all around us? So, how is that like advertising? Well, there’s hundreds of billions of dollars spent advertising to the American public and after a 30-second commercial runs, it’s off into the ether. You might remember it. You might not but the fact is you can harness human energy. You can harness human communication, in this case advertising, in a way that is carrying out the kinds of outcomes that I described earlier, which is fundamentally improving the quality of people’s lives and so in the future, I’d like to see media and an engagement between advertisers and consumers result in something more meaningful, something more tangible, something more measurable and I’m quoted as saying at times, “There’s nothing green about media itself.” Media has to be put in context. If you want to talk about green, let’s get involved in green. Let’s get out and let’s do things that are physical and tangible. If we want to talk about health, let’s surround people in wellness. If we’re going to talk about education, let’s get out into the schools and let’s do something about it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You started in the late ’90s. When did the CBS interaction — when did you make that partnership with CBS? PAUL POLIZZOTTO: That partnership started five years ago. We’ve been part of CBS for three years. They purchased our company three years ago and in this case, we worked with them two years prior in a joint venture that went very well and after two years of a successful joint venture, they felt like it was time to make an acquisition. I was comfortable with the fact philosophically that we agreed. That was really important to me, that we agreed that look, we have to look at this as a two-pronged attack, which is let’s raise awareness around inspiring people to make lifestyle changes and the corporations to make changes in their businesses, but let’s also get out into these communities and do it and they felt strongly that that was a course of action that made sense to them so philosophically, we agreed and once we reached that point, we were acquired and now we’re off and running. JOHN SHEGERIAN: To be the fastest-growing division in CBS, really, five years ago, did you think that was going to happen? PAUL POLIZZOTTO: Honestly, no. I’d love to tell you oh yeah, I had it all planned. I didn’t. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Brutally honest, but it’s so amazing what you’ve created here. PAUL POLIZZOTTO: Thank you. I find my work incredibly gratifying and fulfilling. I was talking to the person that I work for at CBS and we were talking about my job and I said, “I don’t have a job. I’m on a mission,” and you know, I feel like what I’m doing is my life’s work and to be able to do my life’s work and actually make a living, it’s really just- JOHN SHEGERIAN: Very few get to do that and make such a big difference like you’re doing. With the communities that you affect, Paul — I want to just touch this and I want our listeners out there. We’ve got about five minutes left, but communities now, since you’re booming, since you’ve created a boom model at CBS and it’s going to continue to grow, thank gosh, the communities are growing. It’s beyond California. It’s across the nation. PAUL POLIZZOTTO: Yes. We’re a national program. Now, obviously, what we’re doing is über local. It’s very, very local but it’s a national program and my goal is to take this and be an international program. There is so much need. Being involved in these communities as I have for the last 25 years, I’ve never seen it so challenging. Unlike other times, where you sort of felt like, oh, in the next 12 to 18 months, we’ll be sort of back to normal, it’s not like that out there, and so I feel like we have so much need and there’s things right beneath our nose that can be leveraged to improve the quality of people’s lives. How much longer are we going to ignore these opportunities? JOHN SHEGERIAN: What’s the future look like? You know, we’ve passed the tipping point. The next generation below us are on fire for green, thank gosh. They’re really into it, much different than when I was growing up. I’m 50 years old and high school and grammar schools are really now into sustainability and environment. The kids are into it. Where do you see the future of EcoMedia? Where do you see the future of the sustainability revolution in the United States and what lessons can you share backwards? Because once this airs on Sirius XM, we have tons of young people that are constantly emailing us and they want to be the next Paul. Then this uploads to the iTunes network around the world and we get emails from China and Brazil. People are listening and watching and they want to follow in the footsteps of leaders like you that have created these new paradigms. What’s some lessons learned that you could share backwards? PAUL POLIZZOTTO: Well, I would say that, first of all, I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic that in the minds of this next generation are the ideas, the technology, the methods, the processes for us to live here more sustainably. There’s no question about that in my mind. As a social entrepreneur, I often times tell social entrepreneurs I have an opportunity to speak at universities, business schools, and so on and I will say we’ve got this interesting challenge as social entrepreneurs that not only do we have to create viable businesses that can thrive, but they also have to have a positive social impact. To some extent, that’s a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that when positive outcomes are what drive you, then when you hit those financial speed bumps as an entrepreneur and you can’t make payroll, when you hit those financial challenges, you’ll go back to the drawing board and you’ll tweak it and refine it and make it acceptable to the marketplace because you want those positive outcomes to happen so I say to entrepreneurs all the time if positive outcomes aren’t your main driver, there’s probably better ways for you to make a living but when it is, then you’ve got this advantage , which says you’re in it for the right reasons and that will keep you in it when times are tough and so I have all sorts of things that I would like to tell the next generation. We would probably have to do it in another interview. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We will do another interview. Where do you see the future of EcoMedia and CBS and how big is this partnership going to grow nationally and internationally? PAUL POLIZZOTTO: Oh, I think that this is just the beginning. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Top of the second inning. PAUL POLIZZOTTO: No question about it that; our growth trajectory is steep and it will continue to be steep. I love what’s going on around the world in the area of sustainability. I think we’re making tremendous progress. I’m optimistic and outside of the work that I do at EcoMedia, there is nothing that’s more inspiring to me than working with the next generation of social entrepreneurs to really help them navigate the minefield of taking an idea, turning it into a product, launching it into the marketplace, and watching it scale. Ideas are free. They’re free but they come into your mind and they’re effortless but the execution of taking an idea and creating a product and getting it into the marketplace and scaling it, that’s not free and it’s a very different journey. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s a different science. PAUL POLIZZOTTO: Indeed. It’s art and engineering. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there to learn more about Paul and his amazing work at EcoMedia, go to www.ecomedia.com. Paul, we’re going to have you back. You have a much bigger story to tell. The next generation of entrepreneurs need to hear it and keep getting inspired by you. Paul Polizzotto, you are an inspiring social entrepreneur and eco-leader and truly living proof that green is good.