Where the work you produce is a vehicle for the change you want to see in the world
We at the Comms Lab believe the idea of ‘Purpose’ is a powerful, disruptive idea in the early phases of establishing itself in the communications industry. To help make sense of its journey of influence, we suggest that recent interest in ‘Purpose’ represents ‘Act 1’ of its development. There is a significant business opportunity for agencies now to lead into ‘Act 2’. Those agencies that do, will witness growth, through actively choosing to make a positive contribution in the world.
Open curtain: Act 1
The idea of ‘Purpose’ surfaced relatively recently, and has spread rapidly through the industry — from initial interest and exploration, to an explosion of largely disconnected activity.
We see that Act 1 is typified by:
· 1. The introduction of the idea: ‘Purpose’ has seen a spike of interest in the last couple of years
· 2. A plethora of disparate ideas that claim to be ‘Purpose-led’: gender diversity initiatives, external client campaigns, internal agency community programmes
· 3. Identification of a few, famous campaigns that become beacons of ‘Purpose’: Dove ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’, Always ‘Like a Girl’, State Street Global Advisors ‘Fearless Girl’
· 4. Awards categories created to celebrate ‘Purpose-led’ work: D&AD Impact, IPA Effectiveness Award for Commercial Effectiveness for Good (President’s Prize), WARC Brand Purpose Awards, Cannes Glass Lion
Despite this, there is no clear, agreed definition, of what ‘Purpose’ means. This is equivalent to a similar question, 15 years ago of ‘What actually is digital?’
This lack of a definition for ‘Purpose’ should not be held as a negative, but seen as a function of a category-shifting idea, naturally expanding and testing where it can gain most traction. Part of being in Act 1 is to test the boundaries of the idea. The infamous Kendal Jenner Pepsi work played an important role in representing a campaign that sits beyond the boundary line of acceptability. In striving to achieve stability of influence at the end of Act 2, we will be much nearer a clear definition for Purpose.
Before we share how we believe agencies can lead and succeed into ‘Act 2’, it is important to cover how important the area of ‘Purpose’ is going to be and why.
‘Purpose’ as a disruptive force
The nod, above, to the early days of ‘digital’ reflects the foundational belief that the area of ‘Purpose’ represents the next wave of disruptive change for the communications industry. Just as ‘Globalisation’ swept through the communications industry in the 1980s and 1990s and ‘Digital’, since the 2000s, we believe that ‘Purpose’ is the next transformative force agencies will need to respond to if they wish to survive and thrive.
As with the two previous examples, agencies are subject to changing macro-trends that are outside their control, but that their survival is intimately connected to. Responsive agencies successfully grew when presented with the opportunity of Globalisation (e.g. creating global, networked agencies and groups to meet the demand of increasingly globalised clients and their brands) and Digital (e.g. skilling up and understanding how emerging technologies provide new ways to disrupt and connect with consumers). The degree of transition required by agencies to respond to the ‘Purpose’ turn will be of the same order of magnitude. What will be different, will be the ways in which successful agencies will adapt to succeed.
The significance of the Purpose turn in the communications industry is becoming more apparent as the forces that underpin it are better understood, and impact is measured.
The forces driving ‘Purpose’
We are living in the Age of Consequences. Actions that businesses took in the past factored little consideration of their consequences, beyond their desire and ability to drive growth. However, given the tremendous global power and influence business exerts, combined with a growing mind-shift towards understanding the interconnectedness of all things (consider how Blue Planet 2 has dramatically increased our level of awareness that plastic use is connected to the health of marine life), businesses are more aware that their actions have an impact, both positive and negative, on society and the environment. Those that accept this, and recognise that consumer trends require them to be more considerate of their impacts are making strategic shifts.
Think Volvo stating they will only make electric or hybrid vehicles by 2019, Nike aiming for a low-carbon, closed-loop future and currently use recycled materials in 71% of its footwear and apparel products, and Patagonia’s Worn Wear initiative promoting mending and selling used clothing.
These businesses are combining a savvy forecast of consumer needs with an understanding of resource-related pressures to ensure their long-term viability and success. To be purpose-led is to move from being neutral about the broader impacts you have on the world and choosing to shift your business to have a less negative or positive impact.
It is clear that whilst the advertising industry has made tentative steps in this area, its level of self-awareness has to yet mature. This is evidenced by the fact that virtually all major agencies strive for growth, and the growth of their clients, with no stated desire to make a positive contribution via the work they produce. This is an untenable position in the medium term. For example, if we take the relationship between advertising and climate change. The WEF Global Risks Landscape 2018 state the three highest risks by likelihood and impact are all climate related:
It is highly likely such threats will only intensify. Consumption, enabled by advertising, is factored as being responsible for 60% of global emissions that lead to climate change and hence climate risks. Client businesses, like those cited above, are beginning to understand the links between their business and broader climate-related impacts and are making changes to minimise their impacts to ensure their long-term health. This will take creativity and skill.
If businesses are not actively moving, then the investor community are beginning to force them, as with the oil and gas industry directly, or through significant influencers such as Larry Fink CEO of Blackrock. Blackrock is the world’s largest investment fund with around $6.3 trillion under management. Earlier this year, Fink sent a letter to 1,000 CEO’s insisting that their companies must have a social purpose and pursue a strategy for achieving long-term growth. As clients are actively moving in this direction, or will be pressured into doing so, the communications industry, and agencies within it, will need to do the same.
Those agencies that accept and acknowledge that their work has both positive and negative consequences, and face the challenging conversations that emerge, ideally with their clients, will be seen as mature operators who understand the bigger forces affecting the global landscape. Together, with their clients, they can work to create brands and communications that are geared to minimise negative impacts and maximise positive contribution to society and the environment. Such agencies, and the industry as a whole, can position themselves as client partners crafting brands for long term, mutual, positive success.
This opportunity, just like the one presented by Globalisation and Digital in the past, is a powerful way for agencies to differentiate themselves and secure competitive advantage.
Whilst the focus above is on climate change, there are clearly other factors putting pressure on businesses and agencies to act in a more considerate way. These include the stated desire of consumers to want to buy from brands who actively make a positive difference and choose not to buy brands who are making things worse and a young workforce who want to work for companies that have a genuine purpose and whose values match theirs.
Such an idea puts the idea of ‘Purpose’ into context. We believe that ‘Purpose’ represents the vehicle for agencies to take advantage of the opportunity we outline. We predict the opportunity will be taken in the next 12–18 months as a function of large, leading agencies actively changing how they work and in doing so, graduating into ‘Act 2’.
How to win in ‘Act 2’
Those agencies that dominate Act 2, will do so, we believe, by taking the ‘purpose-turn’, the idea we shared in our 2015 report Reclaiming Agency.
Where the purpose-turn is the idea to shift from being morally or value neutral, to stating and embodying the positive contribution you want to make in the world. Or to put it another way, if Unilever states its purpose is to ‘make sustainable living commonplace’ then what’s the equivalent for a top 30 media, creative, digital, social or design agency?
We believe that the agencies that take the purpose-turn will create a thriving culture and spirit grounded in a powerful, galvanising common purpose where the work they do is meeting client, consumer and staff demands for businesses to contribute to a better world for all. Done right and with authenticity, the body language of the agency will be laced with a new kind of swagger that will be viscerally attractive to clients and talent because the agency will have released the strategic skills and creative firepower of its staff to work on things they truly believe are important. These agencies will capitalise on the desire in us all to make a positive contribution to the world we are part of.
The body language of the agency will be laced with a new kind of swagger that will be viscerally attractive to clients and talent because the agency will have released the strategic skills and creative firepower of its staff to work on things they truly believe are important.
The above outlined opportunity is now on the horizon for major agencies as we enter Act 2 of the Purpose disruption. Through the teething troubles represented in Act 1, we will see the idea of ‘Purpose’ taking stronger root in agencies and the industry. If a major function of Act 1 was externally-facing, with the focus on high-profile campaigns and awards, a driving factor of agencies who lead the transition into Act 2 will be internally-focussed with the spotlight on ‘values-based leadership’. In this context, we define values-based leadership as the capacity and ability to connect one’s personal values to the output the agency puts into the world.
Agencies have always welcomed people with alternative, interesting and creative ideas to stimulate great, effective work for clients. Directed self-expression reaps rewards. We believe the most successful companies that will come to define the ‘Purpose’ disruption will have enabled employees to fully express themselves and their values through their actions. This will result in happier, more motivated, creative staff working with clients they want to work with, doing work they love. This will heighten retention, productivity and the quality of work. The goal is to create the conditions for agencies to explore and shift in this direction. A key task is to allow and inspire values-based leadership, where people are invited to determine what they believe is important in life (their values) and take action, in their work, that reflects these core beliefs. This is a foundation stone which underpins the evolution of Purpose into Act 2.
Conversations about Purpose: Act 1
Currently in Act 1, the majority of agencies are still value or morally neutral. This appears to restrict them to two ‘purpose’ conversations. The first is at the interface between the agency and the client:
‘What is the purpose-led work we can do on this brief?’ is an adaptation of the core conversation in agencies: ‘What is the best work we can do on this brief?’. In the context of ‘Purpose’, this has led to fantastic work, such as Dove ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’, Always ‘Like a Girl’ and Whirlpool ‘Care Counts’. Whilst having the potential for significant impact, staff, as has been the case historically, are primarily being instructed what to do by clients.
The second predominant ‘Purpose’ conversation is the interface of self and agency. This, in contrast, is not driven by client request, but by passionate agency staff who want to actively make a positive difference. Their question is ‘What good can I do in my agency?’ They may instigate a gender diversity programme or help reduce the agency’s production carbon footprint with AdGreen.
Here, staff are taking the initiative and creating the change they want to see. This can be hard work, typically driven by passionate individuals or small groups attempting to change established internal culture.
Conversation about Purpose: Act 2
We believe the opportunity in Act 2 is to connect the two conversations in Act 1 with what is happening at a societal and planetary level, i.e. to skilfully raise awareness that ‘Who I Am’ is connected to ‘What We Do’ (agency and client), and that both these things are connected to the ‘Impacts We Have’. These elements are inextricably bound, simultaneous and self-reinforcing. An expansive question here might be ‘Given what I/we see going on in the world, how can I/we called be of service?’.
The role of leadership is to enable this mind-set shift, enabling staff to understand and acknowledge what motivates them to do good in the world they inhabit, and that results in a positive impact across all their work.
Here the invitation is for people to connect to the whole. To recognise what is important to them as an individual, how this connects to issues and problems in wider world that we are all inextricably part of, and ultimately responsible for. To understand that they have the power and agency to use their position and influence to make the change they wish to see in the world. If Volvo can make a change by choosing to make a different sort of car, agencies can make a change by choosing to make and spread different sort of messages. The work you produce is a vehicle for the change you want to see in the world.
“The work you produce is a vehicle for the change you want to see in the world.”
This transition in working culture represents a powerful growth opportunity available to agencies. Such a move is an example of a critical, identified shift in adult development theory. In early stages, what is ‘right’ is determined by an external force (e.g. parents, school, early working years). The shift in development can occur when an individual acknowledges that their internal, moral compass is telling them there is alternative version of what is ‘right’. They then shift their locus of decision making from externally-governed to internally-generated and pivot their actions accordingly. This represents a powerful example of self-mastery. The role for leaders is to do this, whilst simultaneously managing client relationships and a business. The goal is to enrol their agency colleagues (and clients) in this conversation, decide how they want to be of service, and their desired legacy, then act, collectively, from this place. Powerful questions might include ‘What change can I make, given where I stand?’.
The actions that emerge are more authentic and motivated. People believe in the work they do, wholeheartedly. A clean line exists between self, work and the world. Cognitive dissonance dissolves. The impact the agency has is an expression of the collective values of its workforce, in harmony with client’s needs. This would be the behaviour of a purpose-led agency that will come to dominate and succeed in Act 2.
This is a long road, but ultimately a life-rewarding one.
The industry is already applying this thinking
The good news is that we can already see the industry moving in this direction. Gender equality and diversity are issues agencies and the industry are tackling with initiatives like the IPA’s ‘Make the Leap’ campaign, the Cannes ‘Glass Lion’ Award, and JWT’s use of ‘Blind Recruitment’. The agency world is waking up to the power of its will to create the change it wants to see. Given the concerted efforts of agencies and the industry to tackle this issue, based on the above, it is no surprise that gender equality and diversity strongly feature in campaigns in recent years. Channel 4 Superhumans, This Girl Can, Lloyds Bank, Maltesers disability work, McCain ‘We Are Family’, Smirnoff ‘Labels are for Bottles.
This highlights the relationship between the inner inquiry that agencies and the industry embark on, and the work they then choose to put out into the world. The industry has raised the level of awareness and consciousness around the fact that it deeply values equality and difference, while the increased amount of work done in this area further drives client awareness and demand for more work. This also creates internal change through the drive for greater gender equality and diversity in the work place for agency and client.
How to respond: Reclaim your agency
How can you begin to move your agency in this direction? This is the question and invitation at the heart of the Reclaiming Agency training programme we piloted last year. Over six months, representatives from a variety of disciplines (e.g. creative, strategy, media planning, account management) from a variety of agencies (e.g. AMV, Mindshare, Mediacom, Gyro, Publicis Media, Sunshine), individually and collectively explored what it is they value and how they might express this through their work. Participants prototyped a series of activities, that we would consider from both ‘Act 1’ and ‘Act 2’, for example, instigating a programme to manage reduce the carbon footprint of the agency, spreading a ‘Purpose-tool kit’ across 40+ offices, and engaging the whole company in the question: ‘If we are a next generation entertainment company, what’s our responsibility to the next generation?’.
The future beckons
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?Mary Oliver, poet
Acts 1 and 2 are obviously just the beginning stages. Leading 21st century agencies would be greatly empowered if they were to understand and harness what their staff and clients believe is important, truly accept the power and influence they have in the world, and choose to actively wield that power for good. All content, no matter what it is or where it appears, helps to shape attitudes, behaviours and values in society. Once the true power of the larger industry players is recognised, those agencies might raise the question: How do we want to direct our power?
“All content, no matter what it is or where it appears, helps to shape attitudes, behaviours and values in society.”
We are heading into testing times. How we choose to respond will affect the outcome. To participate more fully in the world and do what we can to shape our collective future calls to our deep humanity. It calls us to rise to the test and to find the resolve and courage within ourselves and within each other to meet the challenges ahead. This is the life-affirming opportunity that exists. It satisfies our personal desire to make a positive difference whilst simultaneously meets consumer, client and consumer demands. When we look back and think about what we did in our work that helps future generations, will we be proud?
To find out more about the 2018 Reclaiming Agency Leadership programme, please visit www.reclaimingagency.com
Jonathan Wise is co-founder of The Comms Lab, whose mission is to the maximise the positive contribution of the advertising industry. Trained as a planner, he spent 15 years in agencies, the majority of his time a JWT London. He has won numerous awards including an IPA Effectiveness Gold for the launch of the TV channel Dave. He completed a Masters in Sustainability at Ashridge Business School which led him to explore different ways of looking at the world, including living in a forest for a month and with a Maori community. He is co-facilitator of the Reclaiming Agency training programme. To get in contact, please free to email Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org.