Sir Chris Powell on Purpose

“Remember. It’s just advertising.”

For those of you in the industry, how many times have you heard that? Probably quite a few – this week.

This phrase certainly provides some much needed perspective at times of crises, but it can also leave you feeling like your job, what you wake up to do every single day, isn’t that meaningful in the grand scheme of things.

But the skills that you’ve gained over the course of your career in ‘just advertising’ can be put to use in a way that can actually make people’s lives better.

And our industry can be a force for change.

It all comes down to Purpose.

Recently, Sir Chris Powell, one of TIE’s advisors, gave a speech on Purpose and how Marketing for Good is Good Marketing to the Worshipful Company of Marketors.

We loved it and wanted more people to have the chance to hear it/read it.

Definite food for thought.

Here it is!

Marketing for good is good marketing

Happily there is a current mood in marketing to place more emphasis on the truth that marketing for good can be good marketing. I say can be rather than is as it does depend on the skill of the marketor and the appropriateness of the brand, it is not, I think, an invariable truth. Social and commercial good can be but may not always be the same thing.

Sometimes CSR has turned out to be bolt on rather than intrinsic to a company’s conduct. Enron and VW were both lauded for their efforts in Corporate Social Responsibility while some in their companies were showing great irresponsibility. CSR can too easily be a department rather than something truly embedded in all that the company does (which is why, I think, Unilever has jettisoned CSR in favour of something broader).

I think, in part to overcome this limitation the emphasis is now more on purposefulness, of which sustainability is an example. Purposefulness, being about the very raison d’etre of the brand is perhaps more thoroughly embedded in everything the brand does.

There are convincing examples of social good and successful commercialisation being twins. Unilever’s commitment to sustainability from Paul Polman down cannot be in doubt. Successes like Lifebuouy’s marketing promoting hygiene in India has succeeded in both saving lives and increased profit. Both P&G and Unilever have done impressive work with Always and Dove to combine the building of female self-confidence with strengthening their brands. Whole companies have grown entirely on their credentials in sustainability, Ben& Jerrys (now of course a Unilever brand) and the fashion retailer Patagonia amongst them.

But, I think, we should be careful not to believe that these successful brands are universal prescriptions for maketeers. For instance, neither sustainability nor purposefulness so easily fit the marketing needs for other brands in Unilever’s stable as Lynx, Marmite or Knorr Stock Cubes as they do for soap.

At the brand level purposefulness is not a universal panacea, rather it is a powerful addition to the marketing armoury in appropriate circumstances. It is too easy to oversell and that, I fear, can lead to disappointment and a short life for a good idea. If you try to make it fit all brands in all circumstances – shoehorning brands into values that don’t fit – then the outcome will reek of insincerity and won’t work. It will become a fad and fads don’t last.

Corporate purposefulness

I believe the real power in purposefulness is to be had at the company level more than its individual brands.

Because the power of the idea lies in its appeal to talent, it is the best recruitment and retention strategy for good people. Most good people would rather work for a company that had a real purpose than one just looking to turn a profit.

And because more often than not these days the corporation and the brand are the same thing – all the top rated brands are companies: the Googles and Facebooks, through the Vodafones and Tescos; even the mighty Unilevers and P&Gs these days put their corporate insignia on their individual brand work. Which is why it is right for marketing to take the lead as the owner of the interface between the company and the customer.

It is more influential if the company, rather than individual brands, is where good values and good marketing reside. Values can only be truly embedded if they go right through the company and not just a part of it, otherwise you can finish up with an Enron or a VW.

My old employer, the global advertising agency DDB had a mantra for its managers: that people come first, with good people you will produce good product and from that will come profit. In that order, not the other way round.

All brands cannot be purposeful, but all companies should be. Indeed I think that is what Unilever has become (in a return to its origins). In the 20th century Cadbury and Rowntree were certainly purposeful companies. It is here, it seems to me, that we really can achieve the twin benefits of social good and commercial success while ensuring that a higher purpose is thoroughly embedded in all that the company does as the overall commitment to doing the right thing will shine through in its general conduct.

This can’t be done with slogans or value statements alone. You may have read that Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times mischievously set a trap for senior managers of 24 FTSE 100 Companies. She showed them a selection of corporate value statements and asked them to select the one that was their Company’s. Only 5 succeeded (and they were ones who had had a direct hand in writing them) – so bland and interchangeably meaningless have these things become.

Real values have to be deeply embedded in the corporation. John Armitt – the man who delivered all the Olympic infrastructure – put it well when he said that company leaders have to be clear on values and set clear objectives but then, and by far most importantly, they must walk the talk. People pay much more attention to behaviour than they do to words.

I’m involved a bit with PWC. In the UK they have set their values around ‘Doing the right thing’. As just a slogan it doesn’t do much, but the senior partner has epitomized this value, forsaking business if they cannot ‘do the right thing’ and making it clear that those straying from the path will be unwelcome in their partnership. Year after year they top the league table of the place graduates would like to work; it allows them to pick the best and that allows the partnership to be both decent and to grow.

BMP, the Advertising Agency where I spent most of my working life had the belief that nothing, ever, was as important as producing the right work, work that would deliver for the brand. If that meant upsetting or even losing a client or a colleague or making a loss rather than a profit then so be it. As they say a principle is not a principle until it has cost you something.

Purposefulness at the corporate level won’t always be about performing some specific social or charitable good – but it will lead to companies doing what they are there to do in an honest, focused and decent manner. Their purpose will be whatever delivers the best for their customers and the wider world. There is no better guide than ‘doing the right thing’.

I can’t recall which CEO it was who said it but he or she put it very well. I set the values that I expect and then I spend all my time communicating them….sometimes even using words.

Marketeers are the innovators, marketeers are responsible for positioning, for how company and brand are portrayed to their public, but you can’t do this convincingly if what you are portraying is not what you would wish. Corporate purposefulness, therefore, it seems to me is going to be driven by you, not as some sort of gimmick but because it is true that doing the right thing is right in itself. Happily, it happens that behaving in the right way will bring reward. So I think purposefulness lies in your hands.



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