Creative Mornings: Justin Ahrens

On a recent morning at Savage Smyth, an audience gazed at screens showing the Charles Dickens quote “no one is useless in this world that lightens the burdens for another.” The screen was part of a Creative Mornings presentation and the presenter was Justin Ahrens — principal and creative director of Rule29, a creative agency based in Geneva, IL. The month’s theme was compassion and Ahrens is an expert on the topic.Justin Ahrens Head Shot

“[Compassion] is an innate part of humanity,” he said. “We give to share. We give to love. We give to make the world a better place.”

Ahrens and his team have embarked on several projects to do just that — make the world better. Namely, they’ve partnered with Lifewater, a nonprofit organization, to raise funds to bring clean drinking water to communities in Africa. At Creative Mornings, he walked the audience through his process for completing such a compassion project.

It all starts with taking a leap.

“If you’re not sure what kind of passion project you want to do, make a list,” Ahrens suggested.

That’s what he did — made a list of his interests. His agency was working with Lifewater, whose mission intrigued him. He was doing a lot of cycling as a way to train after a knee replacement, and when he visited Africa with Lifewater, he was absolutely mesmerized by the continent.

When he was there, he saw the struggle to find clean water — the long walks to the wells, the heavy and dirty water-carrying jugs, and the sanitation issues. Ahrens believes witnessing an issue firsthand is a very important part of compassion.

“Go experience it for yourself,” he advised. “See with your heart.”

Putting all these together, he came up with the idea for Wheels 4 Water. He and a few others decided to ride bikes from Chicago to Boston — about 1,000 miles. They’d filter their water along the way, to bring awareness to the need for clean drinking water, and have each mile sponsored at $40 each, with the goal of raising $40,000 for Lifewater.

“I wanted to use my team’s ability for some goodness,” Ahrens said, referring to the skills and talents of his design-inclined creative agency.

Tapping into these, Rule29 created assets to go along with the endeavor, like a sponsor deck and unique posters for every state they would ride through. The actual ride went well, despite a few hiccups, including technical difficulties with their water filter. And instead of $40,000, they raised $102,000.

Ahrens shared a few of his learnings from the whole process: you can’t do everything yourself unless you want to go insane; you should take time during the project to be present and enjoy it; and in general, great things are not easy to accomplish.

But great things they did accomplish. Once the first Wheels 4 Water project was complete, Ahrens and his team took their learnings and evolved a follow-up. This next time, they rode the coast of California — 450 miles to raise funds for 450 students at a school in the Congo.

This time, they expanded the team, brought sponsors in earlier and streamlined the whole process to make it simpler. They weren’t done though.

Their grand finale event was just weeks before Ahrens’ Creative Mornings presentation. This time, the Wheels 4 Water team wanted to reach 10,000 people in just 10 days and educate them about Lifewater’s work. So Ahrens and company rode from Arizona to Illinois.

“We stopped along the route and told the story,” he said, “shared what we were doing and why we were doing it.”

Overall, Wheels 4 Water raised $430,000 in four years, exemplifying compassion, but also hard work — a combination Ahrens supports.

“Do work for others,” he advised. “Do work that makes the world a better place.”