Embracing Purpose and Social Impact: A Playbook for Success
October 4, 2022
“Work hard, play hard.” “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” “Nice guys finish last.” These familiar axioms characterize what many consider the zero-sum game of corporate competition. You either win or lose. For every client won and every dollar earned, someone else is losing. In the musical chairs of business, consuming self-interest is justifiable; when the music stops, don’t be left without a seat.
Through the decades, I’ve seen iconic agencies founded by bold, creative leaders rise and prosper. I’ve also seen them lose their way, or even disappear. In some cases, those agency names remain, combined, like law firms, with other once-great identities.
By good fortune, I was born into this business. I sat at the table of those agency greats, observing how decisions were made and what those choices were based on. I had the privilege of serving as co-CEO at an agency before setting off with close colleagues to create FINN Partners. From the start, we chose to do things differently. We began by identifying our core values, values which would guide our decisions and, hopefully, motivate others to collaborate and make a difference. We determined what types of clients could not be considered – those that opposed diversity and inclusion, ignored the planet’s wellbeing, or turned their backs on science.
Some of my former colleagues told me that the new venture wouldn’t last six months. They truly believed that we couldn’t afford an approach that balanced doing well with doing good. But my new colleagues and I believed then that the sole pursuit of short-term profit is counter to sustainable success. It’s a belief not only based on seeing giants stumble, but also based on the numbers.
In the field of business scholarship, environment, social and governance (ESG) issues are the subject of study after study that show companies engaged in social impact efforts perform better than those that don’t. Recently, the NYU Stern Business School’s Center for Sustainable Business and Rockefeller Asset Management reported that on a growing, quantifiable consensus “good corporate management of ESG issues typically results in improved operational metrics, such as ROE, ROA, or stock price.”
Recognition of the importance of ESG to not only drive sustainable business growth but create a better world in which to do business came from the Business Roundtable’s 181 member-CEOs, who recently declared that companies should not only serve shareholders, but should also “deliver value to their customers, invest in employees, deal fairly with suppliers and support the communities in which they operate.”
This recognition is heartening. Good business is about more than making money and it always has been.
A Moment of Truth for the C-Suite
There’s so much more scrutiny on corporate social responsibility and purpose-driven business practices today than there was a decade ago when FINN Partners made its debut. Agencies today are being called out for being duplicitous – proclaiming the importance of responsibility, sustainability, and purpose in their business practices while working with clients whose practices and investments are antithetical to these societal priorities.
I sometimes hear from peers that they take on problematic clients because they’ll secure “a seat at the table” and advocate for reform. The thinking, I suppose, is that communicators can be the conscience of corporations. Let’s be honest with ourselves; the chances that we, as communications practitioners could reform a significant polluter, for example, are minimal. We can make suggestions and do what we can to influence our clients, but each day that passes without resolution tarnishes reputations and clouds consciences.
It isn’t easy to do this, but in sincerely approaching ESG issues, an agency’s leaders need to put their money where their mouths are. We must examine the entire continuum of action across our clients, their partners, and their suppliers to ensure alignment. Where there are issues, you need to realistically consider if you can influence change or if you need to walk away. As a leader, you must draw your line in the sand and be confident.
Working with publicly traded companies responsible for delivering ROI for shareholders can pose a particular problem. However, more and more financial investment groups recognize that successful environmental, social and governance programs reflect stronger, healthier businesses. They know that if a business is not behaving responsibly, if they’re not balancing profits with people and purpose, they will lose community support and take on unsustainable risk.
The Bottom-Line Impact of Leading with Purpose
The choice made to found a values-driven agency so many years ago was not easy. But I’ve seen in the subsequent years that the market responds when you commit to doing good and seeking to amaze through your work.
At FINN, our mantra is “work hard, play nice.” Our results speak for themselves. Our revenue has increased almost tenfold since we started. We’ve grown into a genuinely global firm with offices from New York to Beijing and New Delhi to London. Driven by purpose, we have built a caring community of like-minded colleagues, who share a common culture. We do not compromise on the foundational values we set 11 years ago, which serve as our North Star, helping us navigate through societal and economic calm or turbulence with equal ability. Those values are our fundamental belief. They are who we are.
If yours is a business looking to make a change and take a more purposeful direction, the best advice I can offer is to begin by having an open, honest conversation with your leadership team. While it’s not for me to say what your organization should do or how you should engage thorny issues, I can tell you that the conversation about what our values should be and how to put them into practice has made all the difference for each of us and our extended community of clients and partners.
When I talk to people, both inside FINN and out, the overriding theme is always similar, “yours is the kind of organization I want to work with.” That’s the legacy we seek; to be sustainably successful based on a business balance sheet that includes both performance and people, and to know that there are other companies that also believe in this approach who are doing well while working to do good.