How Purpose Can Shape Agencies in 2021

5 shops share their journeys

Purpose can build a strong foundation for agencies and their clients.
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In 2019, deliberating Adweek’s Agency of the Year, the jury noticed something about McCann’s work that was submitted: there seemed to be a lot of work that leaned into purpose. The agency’s signature campaign for Microsoft’s Adaptive Controller was well-known and high-profile. But other work for brands like L’Oreal, Mastercard, Ikea and GSK proved that purpose and commerce could live in harmony.

Over the past few years, purpose has become a buzzy topic. For the most part, brands seem to understand (or are working on) their place in peoples’ lives. They also know that they need to stand for something because consumers are looking under the hood of companies more frequently. To that end, agencies, the keepers of creativity, are assessing their own paths forward.

Sure, there is a long history of agencies putting out work for charities, NGOs and organizations that is admirable (and sometimes award-winning). But we’re likely in the brackish waters where one-offs shouldn’t be conflated with actual “purpose,” and both agencies and their clients are figuring it all out in real-time, with consumers watching closely.

“Purpose is about building a mission and ethos about how you act in the world,” said Deb Morrison, the Carolyn Chambers distinguished professor of advertising at the University of Oregon. “Agencies and brands have a selling proposition. The tension comes in about being altruistic and still playing in that realm. That’s the question. How do you balance that and do no harm?”

More and more, agencies put purpose at their core. Some built purpose into the foundation while others have evolved, becoming B Corp-certified, which is an official designation for companies that express a broader mission for spreading positive action globally. Others continue to figure out what it means while maintaining a business. Adweek spoke to leaders at five agencies to learn more about what purpose means for agencies and to get a better understanding of where this practice may evolve.

Baking in purpose from the start

Oberland and Oliver Russell are two agencies that baked purpose in from the start. The former was founded in New York in 2014, and the latter opened up shop in 1991and is considered one of the founding purpose-driven agencies.

Drew Train, one of Oberland’s co-founders (and former head of JWT’s social good practice), sees purpose evolving in the same vein as digital over a decade ago. At its nascent stage, digital was a practice shunted off to the side. Then, when technology took off, scads of digital agencies popped up, and the practice became baked in and less of a curiosity.

“It’s been interesting to see peoples’ evolution [on purpose],” said Train, noting that he believes larger agencies will create, adapt or evolve purpose practices. “When we first said it six years ago, we got quizzical looks. Today, it’s very different. I think we’re at the place now where people are starting to realize that purpose is a real thing and recognized across the industry.”

Oberland’s other co-founder, Bill Oberlander—who first connected with Train on a project helping New York City veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—noted that there are still some barriers to overcome. The big issue is that brands can no longer sit on the sidelines, even as they’ve seen brands like Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, Toms and others bake it into their success.

“If you asked the average marketer if they would consider putting purpose in their marketing plan, it was more of a ‘nice to have,’ and ‘we’ll get around to it as an act of charity,’” said Oberlander. “Now, with Black Lives Matter, coming out of Covid-19, a contentious election—purpose is the centerpiece of a marketing plan. You have to have a point of view.”

Like Oberland, Boise-based agency Oliver Russell started with purpose, centering around social responsibility. According to founder and CEO Russ Stoddard, actions were centered mostly around volunteering and making donations to nonprofits in the community. About 10 years ago, the agency became B Corp certified.

“That’s when purpose really took center stage,” said Stoddard, noting that the agency uses the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework as well.

Stoddard believes that his agency is “on one end of the continuum” in that it is designed for creating social and environmental impact. As a legal benefit corporation, Oliver Russell is legally required to create a benefit in the world and report on it. Most impressively, perhaps, is that the agency has stuck to its purpose bonafides going for three decades.

“I had a prospective client 30 years ago who got back to us and said, ‘wow, they seem like sharp folks, but they’re a bunch of hippies’,” recalled Stoddard. “That shows you where we were back then.”

Back in June, Atlanta-based indie 22Squared built an entirely new structure with a parent company called Guided by Good. Underneath the umbrella is a content shop called Trade School and a consultancy known as Dendro. 22Squared remains as a de facto agency, but each works independently. Among the trio, the new outfit has worked with Buffalo Wild Wings, The Home Depot, Publix and others.

According to Richard Ward, 22Sqaured chairman and CEO, the idea to evolve the structure was to ensure that a growth path remained and that there was a focus in these key areas. Ward says that the shop is a “super mid-size level” with over $75 million in income.

“Our aspiration is to be a $150 million company and to have a global footprint,” said Ward. “We needed a different structure to get us to that next level.”

Purpose remains a crucial component. The agency’s chief client officer, Erica Hoholick, says that the agency’s more “people-first” philosophy is a draw for talent, which translates to better, more impactful work for clients.

“We’re told that we show up differently than other agencies,” said Hoholick. “Clients are encouraged by what that means for their business.”

B Corp as a source of evolution and growth

One of the more interesting evolutions in the agency world is the emphasis on codifying purpose through B Corp certification. The rigorous process verifies social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability balancing profit and purpose. Today, over 200 marketing and communications firms are B Corp certified, over 50% in the United States.

Andy Fyfe, director of community growth and activation at B Corp, notes that companies seeking certification look to manage their impact on the world and their employees. Additionally, it is a way to create some separation from a crowded field.

“For a company to say that they’re a leader in the pack [is important],” said Fyfe. “And third-party certification proves it.”

And while the B Corp badge is meaningful, Fyfe says that the real power in certification is a community where peers lean on each other to learn how to collaborate while growing business. There are currently 3,000 professionals across a wide range of businesses in a group called “marketing leads,” where intelligence and experience are shared. Fyfe and his team at B Lab (within the B Corp structure) continually build resources and examples to open up a wider aperture on purpose.

“People are feeling an urgency to respond [to issues like] Covid-19 and social justice,” said Fyfe. “We put together a lot of resources and examples of what B Corps have done, and paying attention to this builds credibility. We want to inspire people to think of B Corp as aligning with their values, whether it’s where they work or purchase [goods or services]—and using business as a force for good in a way that’s accountable, transparent and legitimate.”

One crucial aspect of B Corp certification is how companies treat their employees and engage their local communities. Rebecca Armstrong, CEO of Portland-based agency North, noted that when the agency formed, a major imperative was to create a place for talent to be treated well, something that is tracked by B Corp.

“When we formed North, the number one value is kindness and how we treat each other,” she said. “We all worked in places with really shitty people and we didn’t want to work with them.”

The second part of the equation was working more closely with local talent and vendors like production companies.

“Agencies tend to be insular and go to glamorous markets and locations,” said Armstrong, noting that using local providers is a plus in B Corp certification and re-certification. “We prefer to serve the community. There are plenty of amazing artists, filmmakers and production companies in Portland.”

Radical transparency as a beacon for talent

Like Armstrong, Lori Gaffney, CEO of Portland independent shop Borders Perrin Norrander (BPN), sees that B Corp certification is a plus, especially when it comes to recruiting. In 2015, Gaffney became the agency’s sole owner after many years as a partner and leading the media practice. One of her first priorities was to get B Corp certification.

“In 2016, I realized that I had the chance to create a kind of place I wanted to work for,” said Gaffney, who spent eight years at Wieden+Kennedy in Portland as group media director.

Transparency became an important issue to address, and one that Gaffney feels is crucial to building trust.

“If all of the salaries are on a sheet of paper and it falls to the floor, not a single person will be surprised [by the figures],” she said. “Sharing financials and everything like that with employees is scary at first, but we do it monthly and I think that people become more committed when they’re not surprised.”

Though the agency is smaller than others (with a staff of 16), Gaffney says that DEI will continue to be a priority. The agency currently has two staffers that identify as BIPOC and looks to underrepresented communities as vendor sources as well.

“The rationale of having a diverse workforce is playing out in a big way,” said Gaffney. “We see that the work is stronger and more beneifical to our clients.”

Some choices, like focusing on DEI, are easy to understand. Yet, during her tenure as CEO, Gaffney resigned accounts (one of which accounted for a large part of BPN’s revenues at the time) because they didn’t align with the agency’s ethos.

“We thought, ‘why are we doing this? For the money?’” recalled Gaffney. “The only ‘pro’ on a pros and cons list was the money. It was a big, bold move, but the staff loves it when [you resign accounts] for the right reasons. Then, that opens you up for new things.”

The results bear the theory out. Filling in and exceeding the lost revenue, BPN now works with one of Oregon’s largest credit unions. Not only is it a massive account, but Gaffney also said that they genuinely embody a partnership.

“They pay fairly and quickly,” she said. “There are plenty of clients that pay agencies in four months for the work they do today. We’re fortunate that we have honest and true partners that understand how important our purpose is.”

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