On Purpose

May 4, 2020

On Purpose

Drew Train

For years, purpose and corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives have largely been viewed by boards and C-suite executives as nice-to-have but nonessential elements of business. Window dressing.

Maybe a social-good effort would get attention after a business crisis or a national disaster. Perhaps a consumer activist shared an impactful viral video they stumbled upon in their social streams. But as soon as the news cycle moved on, it was back to reviewing quarterly earnings.

Those days are over.

A new voice has entered the conversation; and this one is the world’s largest shareholder – Larry Fink, Chief Executive Officer of BlackRock. Fink’s recent letter to CEOs of publicly traded companies demands that businesses publicly commit to a social purpose, and adopt a shareholder-driven approach to management, strategy and governance as an essential element to long-term viability.

As a board member of a publicly traded company, as an owner of a small business, as a career marketing professional, as a citizen, as a millennial and as a father, I couldn’t agree more. Never have all the hats I wear been so aligned and so incentivized towards the same thing. And the opportunities presented by purpose have never been so big. As we know, change is never easy.

“Larry Fink’s recent letter to CEOs of publicly traded companies demands that businesses publicly commit to a social purpose, and adopt a shareholder-driven approach to management, strategy and governance as an essential element to long-term viability.”

People pay more when businesses care more.

Some will capitalize on the opportunity to put purpose at the center of their business, probably the same companies who succeeded at putting digital at the center of their businesses. Some will struggle with this disruption, much like business struggled with digital disruption.

But the challenge brings opportunities for marketers willing to assert themselves in C-suites and boardrooms. The convergence of demand from consumers and shareholders for a purpose-driven approach to business and brand value brings a moment for marketers to step up and be the expert visionaries able to help businesses capitalize on the movement. The opportunity around purpose is now as big and powerful as being the digital guru was 10 years ago.

Madison Avenue, this is the moment to use our collective might to help our clients achieve the market’s new mandate. We are the experts who bill ourselves as the consumer whisperers. We insist we understand their voice. Time to use it. We have the expertise to serve as the active, engaged agents needed to guide companies down the path of shared value. It’s on us to drive profit through purpose.

You can’t fake authenticity.

Like with digital, it’s not enough to talk the talk to our clients, we ourselves must become purpose-driven as an industry. We need to invest in training, diversity and human development. Employees are not short-term disposable assets. Treat talent like the humans they are, not like interchangeable parts. That’s not how you treat stakeholders.

“We have the responsibility to make sure leaders are mindful, responsible stewards of their brand’s power to influence the world and its citizens.”

Let’s also treat our audience well. Enough brand campaigns that feed the forces of anxiety and compulsive consumption. Stop objectifying women in ads, and in the office. Stop working for brands whose existence does more harm than good. We have been complicit in helping brands cause many societal problems, and we can’t be any longer.

There is a model for businesses thriving in moments of disruption — digital. We need to make purpose the "new digital", so we can redirect billions in brand spending towards social good and a fundamental change in the relationship between consumers, brands and societies.

And like digital, we must take purpose beyond the marketing department and into the core of the operation. To do that, we need to understand how to measure its impact on the entire organization’s ecosystem.

See the On Purpose website!

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