How Do You Raise Awareness For a Cancer No One Has Heard Of?

The nonprofit It's A Thing partnered with graffiti artist Mr. Brainwash to launch an experience full of Instagrammable art.

By Ian Zelaya November 12, 2018, 7:01 AM EST

Installations include a giant gum ball machine surrounded by oversize beach balls. 

Photo: Vikram Valluri/

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 60,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with head and neck cancer each year. But according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, 66 percent of Americans reported they had little to no knowledge of the disease. When Nicola Stephenson was diagnosed with the disease around three years ago, she had never heard of it before and discovered how under-recognized it was. Stephenson, the founder and president of digital and experiential branding and communications agency Troika/Mission Group, survived the disease and decided to make it her mission to spread awareness and help people understand that “it’s a thing.”

Stephenson, who founded the company formerly known as Mission 15 years ago, started a nonprofit organization called It’s A Thing. Using her experience producing brand experiences, she and her team launched the organization’s first live event in New York to raise awareness about head and neck cancer and raise money for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

“When I finished my treatment, I asked myself how to use what we know at Troika/Mission Group—connecting consumers and brands through popular culture—to take this thing and make it a bit more discoverable,” said Stephenson. “How do we create awareness for this particular problem in a way that’s easy to connect to, allows people to participate, and allows them to become a bit more curious?”

The answer turned out to be a partnership with popular French street artist Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash, to create a visual, optimistic, and interactive art experience and a marketing campaign about the cancer. Mr. Brainwash created more than 100 custom pieces of artwork for the inaugural experience, which opened October 24 and is on display through November 15 at RXR Realty’s Starrett-Lehigh Building.

Spanning two floors and more than 10,000 square feet, the experience features a gallery of original pieces of art on the building’s ground floor, along with an interactive, Instagram-friendly exhibit and retail space on the 13th floor. Each work of art celebrates body functions that are made possible by the head and neck. Many of the installations—which include headless angels, giant beach balls, a gum ball machine, neon signs, and large-scale paintings—incorporate It’s A Thing’s logo.

“[Mr. Brainwash] hadn’t done anything in New York for a while. He’s a creative thinker and his work is optimistic,” said Stephenson. “We wanted to have inspiring, optimistic messages; all his work is in that vein, and he’s very passionate about helping people. He really embraced our mission to spread awareness.”

For the fund-raising strategy, Stephenson said her organization has tried different approaches. The ground floor gallery space is free and open to the public, but guests can also make a donation to reserve timed tickets to see the experience on the 13th floor. There is also a donation page on Eventbrite; the onsite retail store; marketing partnerships with brands including online toothbrush service Quip, which has created co-branded merchandise; and a live auction, where a selection of artwork from the event is available for purchase on the organization’s website.

“We have a goal of raising $1 million. Currently, we’re more than halfway there,” said Stephenson, who noted the organization plans to continue to sell merchandise and artwork after the experience closes. “Our main goal for this first project was to raise awareness and show what we can do, so we can entice other brands.”

For the future, Stephenson says It’s A Thing will continue its collaboration with Mr. Brainwash through 2019, with tentative plans to take the experience to Austin and London. She also hopes to launch a new creative collaboration and experience in 2020.


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