To Save Portland Shops, We Had to Think Small

Inside our mini-billboards campaign for PDXSOS

Small businesses are part of the personality of any city. They're started, run and staffed by our neighbors and fellow city dwellers. They cater to local tastes and customs or even start them. They're why we love where we live. Working at North, a small agency in Portland, Oregon, with deep ties to Northwest brands, an appreciation for that independence and authenticity is part of everything we do. But it's been hard for many small businesses in Portland, just as it has across the country. 

My wife, Eden Dawn, is the style editor of Portland Monthly magazine, but since the beginning of the pandemic crisis, her focus has shifted to the plights of the small-business community, taking their urgent concerns about survival to various briefings with national, state and local officials. One day, a couple of comments left in her social feed by a local business proprietor stood out. One read, "I'd love to see more large-scale Shop Local campaigns." Another read, "The city should hire a badass small firm to make a massive campaign for all of us." The city, it turned out, had no money or time to spare. Challenge accepted. 

Eden and I brought the idea of collaboration to help save our local stores to North's CEO, Rebecca Armstrong, who, having been personally impacted by the destruction of a family member's store, was extremely interested in developing a campaign pro bono to help. Rebecca also reached out to her close friend and PDXSOS founder Sarah Shaoul. PDXSOS is a program of Bricks Need Mortar (also founded by Sarah, with her partner Jim Hassert), which serves as a hub for encouraging people to both lend support to the businesses they already love and discover new favorites, including many Black, indigenous, people of color and women-owned businesses. 

Sarah welcomed the idea of developing a campaign that would garner attention for businesses' dire predicament and get people to shop locally. Oregon-based Billups was kind enough to donate OOH around town, which helped kickstart the campaign, but knowing people were spending less time in their cars, North quickly concepted a solution to deliver the message to where they were: closer to home. 

To play up the "small" in small business, hundreds of itty-bitty handmade billboards, each standing 12.5 inches tall, were placed by North and a team of volunteers atop planter boxes, picnic tables and Little Free Libraries throughout Portland. 

The locations were chosen by proximity to heavy foot traffic, where people would happen upon them during daily walks around the neighborhood. Irwin Hodson donated vinyl printing—the same used on actual billboards—to ensure longevity. Messages included "Think of the Big Picture. Support Portland's Small Businesses" and "Keep Portland Small. Support Your Neighborhood Businesses."

Continuing the "Keep Portland Small" theme, North and a team of talented filmmakers also created a video love letter to the city. Aerial shots of some of Portland's more unique neighborhood businesses were given the tilt-shift treatment, essentially making our little city look even smaller, like a miniaturized train set. Local musician Laura Gibson wrote the script and provided the music, while an array of shop owners and Portland personalities contributed to the intentionally non-commercial voiceover.

PDXSOS | Distress Signal

These beloved neighborhood shops form the heart and soul of Portland. They have always been there for us, and it's critical not only that we show up for them now but continue to support however we are able, to ensure this city retains its small but mighty spirit.

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Ashod Simonian
Ashod Simonian is a creative director at North.

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