Birth and rebirth through the eyes of a mission-driven creative agency

Personal reflections on our enso origin story and five-year anniversary look back.

Today marks our five-year anniversary at enso. We’re a mission-driven creative agency and startup born out of the desire to create positive impact at scale. I’m amazed by how quickly these years have flown by, and wanted to take a moment to personally reflect upon what I’ve learned from my fellow friends, colleagues and partners over the years, and also to share our origins story from my own vantage point.

enso is the Japanese/Zen word for circle — specifically an incomplete circle. It fits our philosophy in many ways — the idea of that in order to create impact brands and people have to work together.

Prior to enso, I had spent ten years working in the advertising industry with amazing teams building brands that I admired, from Clif Bar to Pepsi to Google. I loved the diversity of people and thought in our industry, and the ideas and creativity that were larger than life, resulting in visible work that made me feel part of something bigger. I was oddly addicted to the long hours and adrenaline-filled sprints to the finish line, and it was a thrill to see months of blood, sweat and tears manifested in Super Bowl spots or projected on billboards in Times Square. Yet, over the years, I began to feel this inner nagging, tugging feeling that something was fundamentally missing. I would eventually realize that feeling was a deep yearning to accomplish something more meaningful than simply driving material success for the sake of business success.

Members on our team worked on the Pepsi Refresh Project from 2008–2010, which signaled the rising consciousness of brands (and people) to use their resources for the greater good.

During that same time around 2008, the confluence of the digital and values revolution empowered a whole new generation of Millennials to demand more from brands, and frankly, to demand more from themselves. The search for meaning escalated and continues to escalate today given the urgency of the world’s problems, coupled with individual empowerment that tools and technology have afforded to the masses. I found myself at a crossroads that many of my friends in the creative industry inevitably also faced, and struggled daily with this question:

How can I continue to do what I love and simultaneously make a more meaningful contribution to the world?

The universe has an amazing way of granting that which you seek, if you open your heart to receive it. So one fateful night 1,825 nights ago, after parting ways amicably with GOOD/Corps, six of us gathered around a table to share a meal together, and forged a new path. During that night with our two Co-Founders, we set a collective intention to come together to create a new type of creative agency, one that focuses on finding and amplifying the intersection of business and positive social impact, and coalesces them into a purposeful north star for our times.

During that first meal together, we shared Chinese food and each had a chance to open a fortune cookie. Slowly, one by one, we read our fortunes out loud…

Our fortunes from day one, revealed.

To the objective bystander, these might sound clever but in the context of what we had just gone through, it was quite surreal, as if someone had intentionally pre-ordained fortunes that would evoke our upcoming journey.

At that moment in time, you could hear the sound of a pin drop as the lives and fates of six strangers intertwined as we leapt off a metaphorical cliff into the unknown. As someone who has always felt in control of my own destiny (what a false illusion!), it was the most exhilarating and anxiety-inducing moment of my life. I was also in the first year of a three-year fully-employed MBA Program at UCLA Anderson, so my pragmatic left brain told me to run, while my intuitive right brain implored me to breathe deeply and lean in.

Our earliest days at enso.

Since that night so many nights ago, what is more remarkable is what has transpired since the genesis of enso. Over the past five years, we’ve grown to a team of ~35 full-time amazing individuals (not including our extended creative collaborator network), from diverse fields encompassing the ad and design industries, grassroots political organizing, business consulting, NGOs and social enterprises. We’ve been able to continuously expand our relationship with our first brand client and partner, Google, across multiple divisions including Google Fiber and Google News Lab, and also created mission-driven strategy, creative engagement and activation campaigns for Khan Academy, Omidyar Network and The Nature Conservancy, to name a few, across sectors to build mission-driven brands and shared missions. And it’s humbling to realize that we’re still a relative startup and our work is only getting started.

The enso family today.

A wise sage once taught me that there are two dimensions of reality in our world. The goal line, and the learning line. The goal line is where we strive for worldly, material gains, which could relate to getting a promotion, finding a life partner or purchasing a first home. A pitfall of focusing single-mindedly on the goal line (cue: hamster wheel) is you may never feel like you have enough, so it creates a perpetual cycle of positive/negative experiences and human suffering. The learning line, in contrast, is the spiritual, inward dimension of our world that often gets overshadowed by our material world and desires. It is in this dimension that through repeatedly failing, falling, learning, and getting up, we evolve into more conscious human beings, who recognize our collective humanity and desire to serve.

The goal and learning lines.

Since my type-A, dogged pursuit of the goal line in the years prior to enso, I’ve learned that what has been more significant over the past five years are the learnings, mistakes, experiences I’ve gone through that have made me who I am today. What follows is my humble attempt to capture a small, digestible part of what I’ve learned, in my pursuit of both the goal and learning lines, at enso, and beyond.

What I’ve learned from my colleagues and partners in working at the intersection of business success and positive social impact:

  1. Over the past five years, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in purpose catching up with business. We see it shifting from an external pressure on brands, to react to Millennial consumers, to an internal pressure within brands, as the best employees want more meaning. This is our perspective on that shift manifested in the three acts of purpose-driven business.
  2. In order to truly achieve positive social impact at scale, collaboration across different sectors is critical. To start, you need to be willing to get out of your bubble and turn “others” into allies. Only by convening a diverse range of forces in culture and aligning them around a shared mission can we have greater impact. We need inclusive, non-partisan collaborations that create win-win scenarios for all involved (read more here about our evolution from missions to shared missions and shared missions: a glimpse of 21st century marketing).
  3. A systems-based approach — not just looking at one aspect of the problem but at the whole picture, is needed to enable impact at scale. Over the past five years, we’ve spent a significant amount of time head down in the business with our partners, honing our strategic, creative, and activation super powers. In this process, we’ve also recognized our own weaknesses, and it is through this recognition that we realize the need to collaborate with the smartest partners outside of marketing, in a holistic way, to truly tackle the world’s biggest problems. We don’t have all the answers, but slowly and surely we’re building a network that will allow us to find them. Learn about how our friends and partners at the Omidyar Network, who are leveraging a systems-based approach to tackle the world’s biggest problems.
  4. People have more agency and power than ever before, and are driving purposeful value creation like never before. It used to be that brands were the heroes, leading cultural conversations, and we’ve seen an evolution to the greatest brands enabling heroes. Additionally, we’ve been ever fortunate to meet courageous business leaders who have the vision and foresight to act on purpose. Most notably, this past year we partnered with the Founders of Everytable who are on a mission to fix food inequality, by making healthy, affordable food available for everyone.
  5. We’re often asked if we have a way to filter out the ‘bad’ brands so we avoid working with them. We believe that businesses are a powerful force for progress, and while we have wrestled and soul-searched at times, we’ve discovered that if there are authentic intentions and leaders at the helm who are committed to purpose from the inside out, the opportunity to create impact far exceeds the drawbacks.
  6. Maintaining a strong culture is critical to sustaining a company from the startup years and beyond. I’m so grateful that enso continues to invest first and foremost in its people through perks that rival the benefits our Silicon Valley friends enjoy. Here’s a hit list of my favorite culture-building initiatives:

7. At a creative service-based company, people are our greatest assets, and to that end, the mix of people we bring on board is the most important factor in whether we succeed or fail. While quite a few of us come from the traditional advertising space, what I really appreciate is our sheer diversity and multi-disciplinary recruiting efforts at enso. Coupled with a strong culture that encourages ego-less collaboration, welcomes dissent and vulnerability, I believe this team dynamic ultimately leads to better work.

Thinking back to that shared first dinner 1,825 days ago, my own fortune that night around the table read “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” Despite the gut-wrenching events of the past few months, I firmly believe that we need to remain optimistic about the future. The ultimate gift of this past election season has been to activate entire generations of community activists and micro leaders who are making their voices heard and rising up to the occasion like never before.

Despite all the challenges facing us today, it’s an amazing time to be alive, as we have the moral clarity, tools, and individual agency to make a difference, especially if we really listen, with open ears and an open heart…and act.

So with the utmost humility and gratitude, happy five-year anniversary enso. Cheers to the next five. Now, it’s time to get back to work…

Made with love, for enso by Yumi Sakugawa.