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The poster is a picture of a group of Latino kids hugging each other and looking into an open casket, where the body of a young man is lying. It doesn't seem like a real upbeat way to advertise a line of clothing.

But it does tell a story, and for this line of merchandise, the story is everything.

The poster is one of three in-store displays created on a pro bono basis by the Miller Group in Santa Monica on behalf of Homeboy Industries, one of the more worthwhile but little-known programs in Los Angeles.

Homeboy is spearheaded by Father Greg Boyle of Dolores Mission Church, who spends his time ministering mainly to gang members at 14 detention centers throughout the city. But Boyle doesn't just cater to their spiritual needs; he's out to get them jobs.

There are six separate businesses under the Homeboy umbrella, including a bakery for handmade breads, a service that cleans film sets before and after shooting, a landscaping business, an artisan shop and a merchandising arm. The latter takes sweatshirts, T-shirts, tote bags and other items and stencils or embroiders on the Homeboy label.

The businesses are staffed by about 40 employees, all of them gang members, many of them working side-by-side with members of enemy gangs. The intent of the program is summed up by its slogan: "Jobs Not Jail."

How does Boyle convince these hard-edged kids to spend their time baking bread and making clothes for little more than minimum wage? Actually, he has to turn away most of them.

"It always feels around here like you have one job for every thousand kids who want jobs," Boyle said.

Business is not booming for Homeboy. While in the past Boyle has been able to convince some stores to carry the clothing, he's not sure whether any L.A. retailers still do. Mostly, sales come through mail order, and after he gives talks on the program to groups like the Kiwanis, he always gets a spate of orders.

Ironically, merchants in Japan are more interested than those in Los Angeles.

"In Japan, the word 'homeboy' has become sort of gangster-chic," said Boyle, who sells a big supply of merchandise every year to a two-store chain in Tokyo.

Part of the problem with selling the clothes here is that, unless you know the story behind the program, Homeboy merchandise looks like just another hip-hop design label in search of an audience. That's where the Miller Group's posters come in.

The three posters picture the funeral scene, a young man getting arrested, and a close-up of the frightening tattoos on a gangster's back. At the top corner, each has an "Exit" sign, and copy that explains the Homeboy program. "Look for Homeboys apparel at retailers that are willing to make more than a fashion statement," it says.

Agency chief Renee Miller hopes the posters will convince more retailers to accept the line, and that they'll help sell the clothes by educating the consumer about them.

"It's a soft sell," Miller said. "It's a very complicated issue, and we needed to simplify it as best we could."

Going solo

When the Kamber Group teamed up with Harvey Englander in 1994, it seemed like a great combination: One of the nation's biggest political image-making machines would have an L.A. outpost, and one of Southern California's best-known political P.R. executives would get a big parent to shore up his agency's financial status.

But marriages of convenience sometimes turn out not to be so convenient. Earlier this month, Englander bought his former agency back, taking it independent once again.

"I think (the split) had to do mostly with the personalities, some of the senior staff that ran (the Kamber Group)," said Englander, who now calls his downtown L.A. agency the Englander Group.

Englander says he got very little support from the Kamber Group. Virtually all the growth of his L.A. office was internally generated, and there was little integration of staffers meaning little support for L.A. clients was provided by Kamber people in other offices. Also, people in L.A. were seldom called on to provide help for clients based elsewhere, Englander says.

Kamber's Washington, D.C. headquarters would go so far as to send its own employees to California to work on a client's business without informing anyone in the L.A. office, according to Englander.

Kamber Group Chief Executive Victor Kamber says it largely came down to a difference in cultures.

"Harvey is still in that very entrepreneurial stage," Kamber said. "I think we're more in the established-business stage. In a bureaucracy, an overhead builds up that sometimes entrepreneurs have a hard time dealing with."

Englander is best known for representing political candidates, though that's becoming a smaller and smaller part of his agency's business just as it is at the Kamber Group, which is breaking away from candidate work to do more public-affairs, issues-oriented P.R.

When Englander sold his agency to Kamber in 1994, it was a four-person operation with $350,000 in fee income. Now it has 12 employees and reported more than $1.2 million in revenues for 1998.

Kamber says his company's support contributed to that growth, shoring up an agency that was not on solid financial footing and providing the kind of back-office support that Englander needed. He acknowledges, though, that Englander was the one who hustled up all the new business.

"I hate to lose the West Coast operation, but it was the West Coast operation. There wasn't much synergy with the Washington office, the way there is in New York," Kamber said.

News Editor Dan Turner writes a weekly column on marketing for the Los Angeles Business Journal.

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