Going Back to Our Original Purpose

As far as I can remember, it was in the late 90s when I first heard the term “doing good” mentioned publicly in corporate and advertising boardrooms. Until that time, it was looked upon as noble perhaps, but largely irrelevant to business. Corporations of course had philanthropy divisions, but most were meant to provide a little window dressing and philanthropy was rarely included in more ‘serious’ discussions of corporate strategy, product development and marketing.

Oh how things have changed. And generally for the better.

In 2002, I moved to Toronto specifically to help launch a global practice at my then employer J. Walter Thompson that focused specifically on cause branding, social responsibility and sustainability. At that time, it was considered rather ‘chic’ and cutting edge to have a practice focused on these issues. Other agency networks, such as Saatchi in London with their group Good Business, also started their own social issues and cause-focused practices. Independent agencies in Toronto such as Manifest had already started doing this kind of work long before, and had legitimately turned it into a profitable practice.

Today, I’m happy to say that concepts like “cause marketing”, “corporate social responsibility”, “sustainability”, “environmental footprint” are firmly embedded in corporate vernacular and even in common parlance. To be running a company and not addressing such issues now – is evidence that you’re well out of date or simply lack a soul.

But more recently, my partners and I have started talking about another layer to this, or perhaps a different dimension to business that is suggested by the term “doing good”. It’s the notion that for many companies, and numerous industries as a whole, their original purpose was about doing service to mankind, or simply offering something valuable and helpful. Something that had genuine utility and meaning.

For example, while airlines have far to go when it comes to reducing their carbon footprint and reducing the damage they do to our environment, the original vision and purpose behind air travel – was inspiring and meaningful. It was about emulating birds and giving humans the gift of flight. About moving people and businesses across enormous distances, compressing time and geography in a way that we could never do before.

Even with ‘vice’ categories such as tobacco and alcohol, in many cases the original purveyors of these products were well intentioned, wanting to offer people relief or entertainment or some other pleasure, long before we were aware of things like carcinogens and toxins (and long before harmful additives were even invented).

When I worked with the executives at entertainment company Live Nation, in our first meetings each and every employee told us, with conviction, that they were really in the business of “selling concert tickets”. They had mistaken a transaction for a real sense of purpose. After we had completed our rigorous and thought-provoking discovery work with them, they realized their original intention:  to offer people “legendary moments” of high emotion through live concert experiences – memories that they would never forget for the rest of their lives. Now that’s a sense of purpose.

What my colleagues and I endeavour to do, is to help companies rediscover what their original sense of purpose is. It’s easy for any of us to forget. Almost any advertising agency can fall into the trap of thinking their actual purpose is shareholder profit, personal glory, or winning awards. Instead of our real reason for being: to use our best creativity to help our clients be successful and find a meaningful place in the collective consciousness.

We call this the rediscovering of your original sense of purpose: “doing good, again”, and it’s based on the belief that most people working at most companies, want to do good. We’d like to contribute something of meaning to society. We want to give, not just take. We just need to be given an opportunity to do so.

– W.