If it weren’t for the money, what would you do with your time?
You work in advertising. You’re not delusional enough to think that you are saving the world, but you can — and should — believe that your work matters. You should know why you do what you do, and what people would miss if your agency didn’t exist.
You need a defined purpose.
This doesn’t change how you do what you do. It doesn’t mean you no longer create advertising and marketing that drives business results for your clients.
It’s a change in your approach — an alternation to how you view and understand what marketing should and can do. And it’s a change for your business.
Because having a reason to exist — understanding your why — lets your agency and your clients know that this isn’t only about ticking tasks off your to-do list or getting through the final days of that project.
Here are four agencies where purpose has defined and differentiated their culture, the talent they attract, the clients they work with, and ultimately, the work they produce.
Founded in 1968, LRXD is an independent, full-service agency that was the result of the merger between LeeReedy and Xylem Digital.
It positions itself as a “health and happiness advertising agency.” And it primarily works with brands that make things that make life better.
It officially made this shift around two years ago. The agency had worked with Naked Juice during its infancy and realized the change in the attitude of the staff as they worked with a brand that created something that was good for people — a brand that could create a movement.
LRXD has since worked with Jenny Craig, Curves, Fresh Express, and a host of better-for-you products such as Activate, Perfect Bar, Level Life, and Rise Bar.
“In any business that is doing well or has done well, there is an intrinsic, own-able, defendable, passionately driven greatness in the brand,” said Eric Kiker, the chief strategy officer of LRXD. “You just have to find your greatness.”
The agency’s focus on health and happiness work extends to the way it runs its agency. When formally forming its purpose as an agency, it brought the 30 employees together to discuss the change in focus and to hear what they had to say.
A solidified purpose requires the leadership to lead the charge, but it will never truly be a core part of a company without the support and trust of the staff.
“You’ve got to bomb proof that thing so that it really is true and anyone in your company can stand up in front of a group of people and say, ‘This is why we exist, this is what we do, and this is why we do it, and it goes way far beyond money,'” said Kiker.
The agency ended up deciding to nix sugary drinks — including soda — from its break room. And in addition to margarita happy hours, its company events include mud runs and visits to dude ranches.
“Find out what is great about your company, make sure that everyone in the company agrees with you, enable them to help you figure out the right answer, and then once you’ve got it, stick to it,” Kiker said.
You can’t waiver on your purpose — if you do, then you will define your agency in a different way.
Made Movement was founded in 2012 and is based in Boulder, Colorado. The three founders — Dave Schiff, Scott Prindle, and John Kieselhorst — began the agency out of a coffee shop, sharing a power strip so they could work at the same table.
They all shared a concern — the economy and the lack of U.S. jobs. While they didn’t know anything about manufacturing, they did understand advertising, and they realized could use their skills to help those that create the jobs. They would define their agency’s purpose as “We make work for brands that make jobs in the U.S.”
But marketing and growing an agency and working with CMOs are two different things. While the agency has a defined purpose, and makes decisions based on this, the team isn’t under the impression that this somehow is the main reason it wins work.
“CMOs don’t care about that,” Schiff said. “They care about the success of their brand."
We learned to allow the mission to be why we get up in the morning — to allow it to inform whom we work with and be a filter for new business — but that's it," he said. "Let it be what it is.”
And this has worked. The agency has grown to employ more than 35 people, and its portfolio includes work with brand such as Seventh Generation, Repair.com, and Asurion.
The founders didn’t want to be exclusive, but their purpose has defined and helped Made Movement stand out — both for the work it has done and the brands it turned down.
“It hurts, let me tell you,” Schiff said. “Some of the projects we've said ‘no’ to, they would have been fantastic clients with incredible products and opportunities and substantial budgets that we could use. Look, we're a young hungry agency. But we also are very honest with ourselves, and we have a really good bullshit meter.”
Max Lenderman, along with Shane Kent and Joe Corr, founded School in 2012. Located in Boulder, Colorado, the agency employees eight full-time employees and relies on a group of freelancers.
School is a “purposeful advertising agency that helps make the world a better place.”
“We don’t want to be a specialized agency,” Lenderman said. “We want to put out work that is great, but the way to get to that work is how we differentiate ourselves. The way to talk about ourselves is how we differentiate ourselves. The way we position what advertising should be is different.”
School was founded on the idea that purpose has power both for brands and agencies.
It cites research like The Stengel 50, which states that brands that have a social mission outperform their competition by close to 400%.
School fulfills its mission to be a purpose-focused agency by donating its budget for marketing and entering award shows to building schools for girls in developing countries. This past February, the principles of the agency went to Guatemala with Pencils of Promise and General Assembly to help build a school.
The agency has also found another benefit of being purposeful — recruitment.
“Agencies, in general, how do they recruit talent? They usually dangle a lot of money in front of them to leave Deutsch LA or the agency puts their work in award shows,” Lenderman said. “They’re basically underwriting or sponsoring those award show submissions, and they are promising them [talent] great work that will be recognized at Cannes or Clio.”
He points that this contributes to the “revolving door” syndrome that the advertising world suffers from. By giving employees something more to believe in, agencies not only retain talent, but attract the type of people who believe in what the agency does and want to be a part of that.
GSD&M, founded in 1971, has made purpose-based marketing its focus, and it has defined its own purpose as “creating ideas that make a difference.”
In the mid ‘90s, the agency was “having a mid-life crisis,” according to J.B. Raftus, senior vice president and CMO of GSD&M. It was 25 years old, still founder-led, and successful. And it was time to do some soul searching.
The agency worked with Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great” and “Built to Last,” and went through a discovery period to truly understand the word “purpose” and what it could mean for the agency and its clients.
“Every since, that’s been our north star,” Raftus said. “It's been an incredibly powerful centering tool for us as an agency.”
Roy J. Spence, Jr., co-founded the agency with four friends in 1971, and after his agency’s journey to becoming a more purposeful agency, he wrote “It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For.” The book is required reading for any brand or agency looking to understand how purpose can impact a business’s bottom line and change the overall approach of an organization.
The agency asked three main questions to find the inherent purpose that exists — whether in a brand, an agency, or a nonprofit.
- What are you passionate about?
- What are you best in the world at?
- What drives your economic engine? How do you make money?
“If you can have a similar answer to those three questions, it's like, ding, ding, ding. There’s something there,” Raftus said. “Because you’re great at it, you love it, and you make money doing it.”
By understanding why purpose is important and creating advertising and marketing based on this core idea, GSD&M has attracted brands like Southwest Airlines, John Deere, Northwestern Mutual, Chipotle, and Walgreens.
Its recent work for Walgreens was centered around mining, communicating, and reinvigorating a more than a century-old brand.
Walgreens is a $72 billion company, but CVS and other retailers threatened its market share. Its leadership and GSD&M focused on the fact that the next generation of consumers demand more from brands.
“Walgreens isn't going to win if the determination of whether I go to Walgreens or CVS is determined about a right-hand turn versus a left-hand turn,” Raftus said. “If the right hand turn is easier, that's where I go.”
GDS&M helped the company reconnect with its core purpose — to help people get, stay, and live well — articulate it, and with the help of the leadership, spread it across the organization. When you are talking about an organization that employs more than 240,000 employees in 8,000 stores across the U.S. and sells everything from mascara to Gatorade to medical supplies, “getting focused around those seven or eight words was incredibly powerful,” said Raftus.
Organizations with a strong, defined purpose — something that transcends the products they produce and the way they market those products — provide agencies with fertile ground for creating big ideas and campaigns that truly connect and change the way an organization is viewed.
“Great insight leads to better creative and media when the foundation of purpose is there,” Raftus said. “Whether that purpose is known by the consumer, or in the case of Walgreens, something new to the consumer.”