Peter Mitchell

Chasing New Experiences

In 1998, Peter Mitchell was in a lucky spot: As a lead staffer in the Florida state senate negotiating a milestone education package, he’d won the trust of both the Republican legislature and the administration of Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. Chiles needed someone to lead a massive counter-marketing effort against youth tobacco use funded by the state’s landmark settlement with the tobacco industry. Though Mitchell was a former journalist with only a few years of political experience and no real marketing background, he was asked to be the program’s marketing director. The reason: Mitchell seemed to be someone both parties could trust.

Still, at the time, it seemed like a risky move to Mitchell. The settlement had set aside $200 million for the anti-tobacco program, but it was an “above-the-line” expenditure, meaning that every year, the state government would have to approve funding. They could choose to cancel the whole thing at any time. “Everyone saw it as something of a doomed job,” smiles Peter. “First, you have to get kids off tobacco, and that’s just not gonna happen. You’re running something of a boondoggle. You’re also leaving the Republicans, who are on the rise in Florida, to go to the Democrats. And the thought was this program would only be around for one year. People said I could write my own ticket now, and I was going to throw it away on this crazy tobacco thing.”

Peter didn’t see it quite that way. Where others saw doom and certain failure, Peter saw it as an opportunity to learn new skills, apply his abilities as a journalist and educator, and to take a risk. “I didn’t want to stay where I was,” he explains. “I thought this sounded kind of exciting. There were a lot of times in my career when I was really comfortable, I was enjoying what I was doing, but I took a leap of faith.”

Those leaps of faith paid off in spades. From leaving journalism for politics, to leaving legislative work for behavior-change work, to moving into the non-profit world, to starting his own business, Peter has found his way not by sticking to what was safe or comfortable, but by being willing to jump for the next opportunity.

Peter’s little tobacco project went on to became arguably one of the most famous and successful behavior-change public programs in American history. Known as the “truth” campaign, the work produced such astonishing results—immediately cutting teen tobacco usage—that the campaign was picked up nationwide and became notorious for its striking and memorable ads. Yet, less than a year later, once Chiles has been replaced by Republican Jeb Bush, the state House Republicans made a play to cut the program. Teenage grassroots activists organized their own protests, overwhelming the new administration with a PR nightmare.

“It was in every newspaper,” remembers Peter. “It even made it to the front page of the LA Times. People were calling me from all over, asking if I wanted a job.”

In the chaos, Peter was fired from his position running the tobacco program, a move so foolhardy that it attracted national press. After Peter okayed release of the results of the program, news outlets across the country wanted to know the answer to one question: Why had new Governor Jeb Bush fired the wildly successful Health Department employee who had famously cut teen smoking rates in a single year? “It was in every newspaper,” remembers Peter. “It even made it to the front page of the LA Times. People were calling me from all over, asking if I wanted a job.” Although Peter, as predicted, had only lasted a year on the project, that year was transformational. His successful campaign and the national spotlight were a huge boon to his career.

Today, Peter is Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Marketing for Change Co. (M4C), a communications firm that works with public and private clients on behavior change projects. M4C takes a different approach than most communications firms, encouraging clients to think less about market share as compared to their competitors, and more about the untouched potential of those who do not yet use the product, behavior or service in question. “Most ad agencies are targeting the people who are already considering making this purchase,” explains Peter. “We want to target that, let’s say 80% of people who hadn’t even considered it, we work on bringing it into consideration. Once you get people into consideration, the rest is easy as long as you have a good product.”

Since its establishment in 2005, M4C has gone from working out of a one-room office in DC to having 3 major offices nationwide. Now a staff of 30, about half work out of the DC office, a quarter in Tallahassee, and a quarter in Orlando. Currently, M4C clientele is about 60% foundations and non-profits, 30% government, and 10% for-profit, although Peter sees more for-profit business in the firm’s future. “It’s easier work,” he notes. “We can actually achieve their goals pretty quickly whereas when you’re trying to get people to eat vegetables when they don’t want to, to drink water instead of soda, that’s a longer-term question.”

M4C prides itself on its creative approach and memorable campaigns. When they were contracted to help prepare the public for a potential pandemic flu outbreak, Peter was adamant that the project be reframed. Preparation meant two things: first, people needed to have supplies at home. Second, people need to wash their hands and practice other basic hygiene in public settings. To achieve those results, Peter looked at other ways to introduce these two behaviors without making it about pandemic flu. In order to get people to keep supplies in their home, M4C ran a hurricane preparation campaign, reminding people they would need food, medical supplies, and water on hand in the event of such a disaster. In order to get people to wash their hands, they ran what Peter calls the “Fifth Man” campaign, emphasizing that 4 out of 5 people wash their hands after going to the bathroom, and creating a social stigma around being that fifth man who doesn’t clean up after themselves. “What it did was make those behaviors a norm,” explains Peter. “We wanted to make things like staying home when you’re sick to be a norm. And if you look at the numbers before and after the campaign, you did have more people staying home when they got sick. Our reasoning was, no one is going to do these things because there might be a pandemic. But we can introduce these behaviors in other ways.”

M4C works in a wide variety of arenas, from public health to the environment to improving the customer experience. The firm built for the Pew Center for the States and the American Academy of Pediatrics to dispel myths about fluoridation under the banner “Life is Better with Teeth.” They’re contracted by the city of Santa Monica to help improve the experience of citizens seeking services such as building permits, and housing assistance. The group draws on academic research in the fields of behavioral economics, social psychology, and marketing to navigate approaching so many different topics from new angles. And ultimately, it comes down to people. “I do what I do because I get to work around a lot of creative people,” says Peter of his team. “They are what give me energy, everything centers around them. I have great people, we aren’t hemmed in by the policies of a large company, and we can do what we do super efficiently. We get to work on really interesting projects, making real change in the world.”

“My dad was a super hard worker,” he glows, “and he has no pretense about him. I try to be the same way. There’s nothing beneath me, nothing.”

Peter’s work is about a million miles from what he imagined himself doing as a kid in a small New York town. Though born in Brooklyn Heights, his earliest memories are of growing up in picturesque Cazenovia, New York. His father, a former Wall Street lawyer, had decided to raise his family in the tiny town and set up shop as a country lawyer. There, he was just as likely to accept favors, pies and maple syrup for legal advice and representation as he was to get paid for his work. His generosity became so locally famous, Peter was often greeted happily by strangers as “Peter Mitchell’s kid!”

Peter describes Cazenovia, a village of 3,000 people surrounded by dairy farms, as “storybook” and “like the town from the Andy Griffith show.” It was a friendly town where everyone knew each other, crime was practically non-existent, and kids walked to the public school together. Peter was the eldest of three kids, with a brother two years younger and a sister nine years younger.

Cazenovia sits on a lake, so Peter and his two best friends, Don and Kevin, spent the summers swimming and sailing to each other’s houses. The three were attached at the hip all the way through high school, and Peter is still close with both men today. He remembers Don and Kevin often visiting for dinner, spending hours talking with the whole Mitchell family about school, sports and politics. The three grew up doing all sorts of odd jobs together, from tree removal to painting to home demolition. In the winter during high school, Peter and Don were ski instructors.

Peter was very close to his father, who died last year, and remains close with his mom. “My dad was a super hard worker,” he glows, “and he has no pretense about him. I try to be the same way. There’s nothing beneath me, nothing. I’ll wash dishes at the office, whatever. If it takes extra effort, there’s no excuse not to make extra effort.” Peter’s mother, a writer, had dropped out of college to support his father through law school, but eventually went back and got her degree at Colgate years after Peter himself had graduated from the school.

“My mom was always so supportive of me growing up,” remembers Peter. “She was always so kind, to everyone, and I could do no wrong in her eyes. When my grades weren’t the best after freshman year of college, she just told me she knew I could do better. She wasn’t angry. And that motivated me.”

Peter had done well throughout high school, both starting and then editing the school newspaper and earning great grades, but college at Colgate was a bit of a culture shock. The other students had gone to prep school, and although he’d initially planned on becoming a chemist, Peter quickly decided the field wasn’t for him. “What happened was, I took a college chemistry class,” laughs Peter, “and I also got very interested in my English classes. I had always had an interest in journalism, but I’d never thought about it as my career before.”

Peter fell in love with his American Poetry course and began to think more seriously about pursuing writing as a field. He also had an interest in politics, so ended up majoring in Political Science. His junior year, he studied abroad in Zambia, gaining a whole new perspective on politics through the lens of the socialist African governments on the rise at the time.

After graduation, Peter got a job at the New York Times, where he was thrilled to be working at such a venerable institution, but frustrated to be lowest on the totem pole as a copy boy. “I was one of the kids who was sent to go look through court records, that kind of thing,” laughs Peter. “I was there a year and I thought, I’m not a reporter yet! What’s wrong with this! I was too privileged; I was being a jerk.”

Still, his impatience motivated him to dip his toes in politics for the first time, leaving the Times to go work as the Press Secretary for a New York State Senator. The job wasn’t what he’d hoped; Peter was in for a rude awakening. Although his boss was a rising star and great on paper, in person she was distrustful and unpleasant. Within a year, Peter took another leap, back into journalism.

Of his wife, Megan, he says, “She’s my best friend. She’s very smart, a lot smarter than me, and she’s the ultimate person who always has your back.”

This time he tried his hand at a small, local outlet where he could do more reporting. The name of the paper was the Elizabeth Daily Journal, and it covered Northern New Jersey. “I covered a town called Linden,” remembers Peter wryly. “When I first started, the mayor said to me, ‘You know, Linden doesn’t smell that bad.’ I thought, well there’s the Chamber of Commerce slogan for you. Linden doesn’t smell that bad!” Peter later became the paper’s State Capitol reporter, and then a City Editor, but a round of layoffs put him on edge. He left New Jersey for a paper in North Carolina called the Wilmington Star-News, and two years after that moved on to the Orlando Sentinel, where he stayed on as a reporter for six years.

Peter’s last job in journalism was at the Wall Street Journal, a great job at a respected paper that his younger, copy-boy self might’ve dreamed of landing. But Peter, ever wary of getting too comfortable, chose this moment to leap back into politics in a move that confused many of his journalist peers.

In 1996, Peter took a position as the Policy Coordinator for a Florida State Senator. It was here that he solidified productive relationships on all parts of the political spectrum. “My job was to come up with our legislative agenda and shepherd that through the Senate, through the House, and get the Governor to sign,” recalls Peter, “And the House and the Governor could not talk to each other very well, so they’d both come to me. We really became the centerpiece of negotiations.”

It was coming off of this success that Peter made the, to some, bewildering choice to accept the anti-tobacco project that would define his career. But as usual, Peter’s gamble paid off in a big way, launching him into the national spotlight and opening doors for him around the country.

Now, employing a staff of 30, Peter considers his leadership style to be, above all, empowering. “You want to empower people, and you want to do it in a way that they can be successful,” explains Peter. “Empowering is not delegating. Empowering somebody is helping them move from a point that they aren’t qualified to do something, to the point where they are more qualified than you are. Ultimately if they fail, that would be a reflection on poor leadership. So I believe in helping people get to that next level.”

To young people entering the workforce today, Peter advises something simple: listening. “You can’t listen too hard,” he affirms. “You can talk too hard! But you can’t listen too carefully, you can’t listen too much. Actively listen, if you don’t understand everything right away, that’s okay. The more you soak up early on, the more you’ll be able to shine.”

Throughout his career, Peter has been impressively successful across a variety of fields, but he’s quick to emphasize that his greatest priority is his family. Of his wife, Megan, he says, “She’s my best friend. She’s very smart, a lot smarter than me, and she’s the ultimate person who always has your back. At the end of the day, if I’ve had something bad happen at work, something’s gone wrong, I just feel like, oh, but I’m going home to Megan! No matter how big the challenge, you can’t knock me down because I still have Megan.” And while he de-emphasizes the importance of material things, he highlights the value of his family photos as his most treasured possessions. “I’m not one of those people who collects expensive cars or anything,” he nods. “I just have a lot of pictures of my family, my friends, and all four kids at different ages. Because to me those are experiences. We don’t save for things, we save for more experiences.”

For Peter, that desire for new experiences has driven him to find success in journalism, politics, public policy, advertising, and entrepreneurship. There’s no telling what may be next for the man who never gets too comfortable.

Peter Mitchell

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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