Last week I went to a talk on Tuesday – and then saw the real thing on Thursday.
The talk was given by Tim Lindsay and was entitled “purpose beyond profit”.
Before it started, Tim and I discussed what an executive creative director does these days – and we concluded that the answer was, spend all their time figuring out how to win awards.
This might not be such a bad thing for Tim, given his role as CEO of D&AD.
But it was an interesting counterpoint when, three minutes into his talk, Tim quoted the title of a book about Howard Gossage, which was “Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man.”
By that criterion, there aren’t many ECDs who qualify as “grown ups”.
Tim then went on to heap praise on Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, who is doing the most incredible job of making his enormous company change the world for the better. Paul has said that all consumer- facing companies should rip up their business models and start again.
But whenever this topic is raised , the same two questions keep surfacing in various guises.
One, is this commercially feasible ?
And two, (from a consumer perspective), are you doing this just to sell more products ?
My instinct is to let the people asking the first question talk to the second group because if it’s so obviously appealing to customers, then that answers the first question stone dead.
The second question is thornier. On one hand, I’d ask the second group what exactly is the point of a company that doesn’t want to sell its products ?
But the issue of over-consumption is, of course, crucial. It’s one which Unilever are well aware of - (Keith Weed, their CMO, kicks off all his major presentations talking about it) – and that is why their strategy is based on increasing market share.
But the problem with both those questions is that, like most reasonable-sounding questions, they’re just a reason for not doing anything.
That’s the real problem right there.
Anyway, two days later, I met Dave Hieatt for lunch.
Dave worked in advertising for 10 years, I helped him get his first job – and he’s the sort of guy who just DOES things.
He set up the legendary clothing company Howies from a photocopier while working at AMV back in 1995. His vision was bold, distinctive and simple – he wanted a company that made people think as well as buy. Particularly, he wanted them to think about green issues – Howies championed sustainability way before any of the other companies in this sector.
And that of course is the only issue worth talking about – because if we don’t sort that out, we’re all going to die a slow painful death.
Howies was actually doing a lot of what Patagonia does now – years before Patagonia did it. (This isn’t a dig at Patagonia, by the way – who I would cross the desert to applaud. It’s a hat-tip to Dave.)
He wrote the copy for some brilliantly engaging catalogues and he created a brand that stood for something beautiful. He did it with wit too – their endline was “the 3rd biggest clothing company in Cardigan Bay.”
Howies was very successful but then had some bruising encounters with the business world. But now Dave is back with “the 25 mile pub” – a pub that provides food cooked with ingredients sourced from within a 25-mile radius.
Sheer genius, and several brewers are talking to him about a national roll-out.
He also set up “The Do Lectures”, a gathering in Wales which celebrates bold action in all areas – and he’s now looking for funding for a new business start-up incubator.
He’s the nicest, straightest guy you’ll ever meet in your whole life. He could have made millions out of Howies – but he has always put his principles ahead of financial greed.
So while a group of people working in advertising debated the issue of “purpose beyond profit” in central London – a guy who lives in South Wales, and who used to work in advertising, was showing us all how to do it.
But if that doesn’t persuade you … then think about this.
The smartest marketeers in the world are putting this thinking into practice – Unilever. The thinking is something I’ve been saying for years – make all your brands a force for good. Use those millions of pounds of marketing budget to do something more valuable than wallpaper the city with messages that insult our intelligence.
Solve real problems for your customers.
Also, what are the two most creative agencies in the world ? Droga and W&K.
Look at the work they do and you’ll see that ethical issues are usually a strong part of their thinking.
So there are reassuringly selfish reasons to think about altruism.
In fact, you don’t even need to be a nice guy to get this.
The niceness might come later when you get a warm feeling and realise that totting up figures on a spread-sheet is only ever going to be the most boring and pointless part of any business venture.
Changing the world for the better – now that’s a reason to get out of bed.
And a final thought – if you’re NOT trying to change the world for the better, on a daily basis, maybe – possibly – theoretically – you’re one of the bad guys.
If you want to know how urgent this is, you could try reading “Ten Billion” by Stephen Emmott.
(It’ll make a larger dent in your brain than anything else you can read this year.)
Unless you’ve got a good reason not to, of course.