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Outside the Box Agency’s marketing business built around storytelling

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Outside the Box Agency’s marketing business built around storytelling
Justin Springer, founder and president of Outside the Box Agency, specializes in visual storytelling. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Outside the Box Agency President Justin Springer’s path has always been nontraditional, and his entry into entrepreneurship is no exception.

A few years ago, when he was frustrated by a string of unfulfilling jobs and job searches, a friend mentioned Future Boston Alliance, the organization known for championing innovative ideas for Boston, but less known at the time for its new business accelerator program.

Springer thought he was simply signing up for membership in a club focused on Boston happenings and people.

“I filled the form out with all the stuff I’d been working on,” he says, speaking with the Banner recently in his light-filled workspace at Fairmount Innovation Lab’s new Uphams Corner facility. To his surprise, he received word that he’d been selected for Future Boston’s accelerator cohort.

“I didn’t have a business yet, but I had always wanted one — this was the push for me to get this going. So I started my business backwards. Just imagine a ski slope, and you’ve never been skiing, but there’s no stopping.”

On the web

Out of the Box Agency Online:

Facebook/Twitter: @OTBAgency

“Finding Boston’s Mr. Joy” video shorts:

With Bobby from Boston: watch?v=SRsFUl1vcXU&t=4s

With Wally’s Jazz Cafe:

‘Finding Mr. Joy’

Outside the Box Agency, which the 38-year-old Springer terms a “creative think tank,” offers services from brand management to public relations, but the heart of the work is digital storytelling.

“You have to show people the great things that you do,” he says. “A lot of nonprofits tend to present data — but visuals can show their energy, their diversity, their stories.”

An important early and continuing client is ArtsEmerson, who has tapped Springer’s imagination and community connections to reach a wider audience for its productions, which typically run in downtown Boston venues.

“They hired me to be the bridge to Dorchester, Roxbury, those communities that may not always feel invited,” he explains.

Springer was charged in 2015 with spreading the word about ArtsEmerson’s production of “Finding Mr. Joy,” the story of a Harlem shoe shop owner whose wide-ranging impact on his community isn’t understood until he goes missing. Springer jumped on the idea of exploring who Boston’s own “Mr. Joys” might be. He solicited ideas from community residents and set to work producing a series of video portraits highlighting the unique personas of longtime community advocate Mel King, the late “Wally” Walcott of Wally’s Jazz Club, and Bobby Garnett, owner of Bobby from Boston vintage clothing shop, who passed away in 2016.

“Sometimes it takes a different kind of invitation to start changing people’s perceptions of the theater and of downtown spaces,” says Nicole Olusanya, special initiatives manager at ArtsEmerson. “Justin’s work in creating that video series really helped drive demand. And that demand helped us listen to the community, and realize that this was a piece of art people in the community really want to see.”

ArtsEmerson is planning another run of “Mr. Joy” in April, Olusanya noted, this time as a touring production in several Boston neighborhoods.

Southern charm

Springer’s world encompasses arts and youth development work alongside and often merged with his Outside the Box Agency work. His projects in recent years include BREAD (Boston’s Racial + Economic Activated Dialogue), and the Dream Builders Youth Project, which began with an art mural project with students from Jeremiah Burke High School depicting Grammy award-winning artist and disco queen Donna Summer. He is the curator of “Boston Unplugged,” a concert series he devised for ArtsEmerson that features rising local music talent and benefits local nonprofits.

Springer lives in Roxbury, a short walk from the Fairmount Innovation Lab, but carries a bit of the South inside, stemming from childhood summers in Tennessee with his father.

“I’ve got a little laid-back country and southern charm, but also some city hustle,” he says. In the Innovation Lab’s open space, he tends to roam about, doing work by phone as well as getting to know his entrepreneur neighbors.

His young agency’s revenue remains sporadic, but Outside the Box grossed about $60,000 last year, he says, even as he juggled it along with a full-time marketing job until December. He hopes to double that revenue this year. Other goals include attracting some new and larger firms as clients and building a permanent staff.

Springer gives substantial credit to Future Boston Alliance (now Epicenter Community) for paving his path to business ownership and to Fairmount Innovation Lab Executive director Liora Beer, who gave him a lifeline at a low moment in life. He and Beer have worked out a partnership in which his company resides in the Lab in trade for providing branding and promotion services for the Lab and the other entrepreneurs in residence.

“I’m very highly invested in the Fairmount Lab. It gave me another chance — maybe my 30th chance!,” he says. “Since I’ve been here for the past month, my whole energy level has gone up — everything I was worrying about disappeared.”

Especially exciting at the moment is a budding partnership with another Fairmount Lab entrepreneur, Jemuel Stephenson, founder of Fabwright Origins and an expert in digital design and 3-D prototyping. The two are brainstorming on ways they could work in tandem to devise branding and promotion strategies with Stephenson’s skills in the mix.

After many years of working for others, “giving someone else all my good ideas,” as he terms it, Springer relishes being able to choose clients whose work he believes in and starting to cultivate a pipeline of local young people who could pursue creative careers.

“When I was 17, I didn’t have someone pushing me,” he says. “I’m an entrepreneur, and also a social entrepreneur. I want to build the future of creatives in Boston.”