Do You Know Your 'Why'? 5 Benefits of Defining Your Agency's Purpose

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting




There is nobility in creating great advertising that drives business results. There’s no denying that. 

But is creating great advertising enough?

It might be, but it is also worth considering how the industry’s problems of retaining and attracting talent, developing long-term relationships with clients, and sustaining profitability are affected by the industry’s image of being everything for everyone.

“By nature, advertising is agnostic,” said Dave Schiff, founder and chief creative office of Made Movement. “You are supposed to stand for whomever pays you, and then figure out an awesome way to stand for that.” 

Founded in 2012 in Boulder, Colorado, the two-year-old agency has worked with brands like Seventh Generation, Walmart, and and has grown to employ more than 35 people. 

Launched during a time when words like bailout, deficit, and austerity were gracing the front page of newspapers, the founders felt the pressure of doing something that would matter in the economic market. That’s when they decided that while they didn’t know anything about manufacturing, they did understand advertising. And they wanted to be the ones to help those “that make things” in the U.S.

“I’ve always felt like people in advertising aren’t cynical,” Schiff said. “They’re just a bunch of crestfallen idealists.”

Why Purpose Matters for Advertising Agencies

Purpose defines why you do what you do -- why you exist. 

Roy J. Spence. Jr., founder of Austin-based agency GSD&M, defined purpose in his book It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For:

“Purpose is a definitive statement about the difference you are trying to make in the world.”

It gives your organization an end point -- not in terms of revenue or even a list of clients you want to work with. Rather, it provides you and your team with a view of how your agency will make a difference, setting everyone on the same path and giving everyone the chance to aspire to be better, create better work, and form better relationships. 

This shouldn’t be confused with your mission, which is the guide for whom you serve, what you do, and how you do it. Your purpose is about one single word: why

It answers the questions: Why does your company exist? Why do you go to work every day? Why do your employees continue to come to work? Why do clients want to work with you?

Purpose gives your agency and your staff a reason for existing — a purpose for making a profit. 

That’s not to say that you need a reason to make money. People need money to live their suburban- or city-dwelling lives. But we know that if money was the only reason for working, many of us would not be in advertising. There are far more lucrative jobs that require fewer late nights at the office. 

“Anyone who has ever been in business knows that if all you are chasing is dollars, then you will never really get rich,” said Eric Kiker, the chief strategy officer of LRXD.

Kiker understands the attraction for agencies to be everything to everyone. 

“Agencies go through this when they are young,” he said. In the beginning “we had to take what came through the door because we had mouths to feed.”

But eventually, the agency leadership realized that the types of clients they liked working with, the projects they felt most invigorated by, were ones with a purpose to help people live happier and healthier lives. 

A few years ago, it formally went through its own Two Weeks to Truth workshop and asked: If we do our jobs well, we will be able to do “what”?

The team decided that they wanted to be able to hire their clients -- the clients they wanted to work with. 

To meet this goal, they needed a bigger purpose -- one that would energize and focus their team. 

The result was: “We work with brands that help people get healthy and celebrate feeling good.”

LRXD now boasts a client list that includes Curves, Jenny Craig, Kampgrounds of America (KOA), and Red Robin.

Define Your Purpose to Differentiate Your Agency

You might think that defining a purpose is a waste of time. You’ve got clients to take care of. It’s 4 p.m., and you haven’t even eaten lunch yet. Why do you need to think about your agency’s “why”?

There are five main benefits for defining your purpose:

1) Attracting — and keeping — the best talent.

Working towards the same goal not only brings a team together, but it attracts those who want to be a part of what you are building. Employees are able to talk about their shared passions, and a purpose allows you to more easily understand who is a good cultural fit for the organization. At LRXD, company events include mud runs and visits to ranches. Most likely, anyone who doesn’t enjoy these type of events will quickly look elsewhere. 

2) Finding your focus and staying steadfast in your mission. 

By defining your purpose, you are giving everyone direction. Staff is able to look at their roles at the agency, the clients they work with, and the creative they produce through a lens of purpose. It provides a tightrope and a focal point so that while they may not be able to avoid the frenzied life of advertising, they can find some order in the chaos. 

It also helps agencies to focus their business goals and models. Market conditions change -- for better or worse -- but when the agency makes decisions based on its purpose, it doesn’t have to simply react to industry trends or new competition. It can define its own path. 

3) Attracting new business.

Purpose is a differentiator.

It shouldn’t be the reason for having a purpose, but it does play a role in setting an agency apart from the multitude of service providers. 

Max Lenderman founded his agency School in 2012. Located in Boulder, Colorado, the agency employs 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 we 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. 

“Research shows that when a brand has a purpose and it’s authentic, and consumers believe that is it real -- not good washing -- there is a definite business case to make,” he said. “Your business will grow.”

Havas Media completed a Meaningful Brands study in 2013, and it echoes Lenderman’s sentiment. It found that brands that are meaningful outperform the stock market by 120%.

When creating a campaign, most agencies ask: Is this on brand? 

School’s team asks: Is this good for the brand? Is this good for the world?

It is solving the same problems any other agency is asked to solve. It’s just doing it with a different perspective.  

4) Building a culture of meaning. 

A culture isn’t formed around beer kegs and ping-pong tables. But many agencies try to use these physical aspects to encourage an emotional tie between people. 

Having a defined purpose -- a reason for people to get up everyday, grind their teeth through a commute, and put in at least eight hours every day — is what actually creates the type of culture that makes people want to stay and create great work. 

And you can’t fake it.

“The first people that will recognize that your purpose is bullshit are your employees, your own people,” Schiff said.

Agency leaders have to be critical and examine every decision they make in relation to what their purpose is. An empty purpose will be the fastest way to drive away both clients and staff. 

When LRXD was trying to live its “health and happiness” credo, the leadership presented the idea of getting rid of soda in the break room. While there were some side glances and hesitations, the entire staff ended up agreeing that nixing the sugary drinks was a good idea. 

5) Crafting more impactful — and insightful — advertising.

By understanding purpose and why it is important, agencies can also create more effective advertising -- advertising that isn’t based on a campaign cycle and easily forgotten. A purpose holds together a brand’s narrative, its journey, and it helps consumers better understand how they fit into the brand’s story -- regardless of the product.

GSD&M, founded in 1971, is based in Austin, Texas, and has another location in Chicago, Illinois. It employs more than 450 people. The agency focuses on marketing that leverages its client’s core purpose and has defined its own purpose as “creating ideas that make a difference.”

Take for example GSD&M’s client Southwest Airlines: Founded in 1967, Herb Kelleher didn’t want to compete with other legacy airlines. So he created a new business model. Kelleher was in the “freedom business -- the business of democratizing the skies.” This idea is at the heart of most campaigns and messaging created for the airline. 


Or consider another purposeful client of the agency’s -- John Deere. “They actually believe they’re not in the manufacturing business but rather the service business,” Raftus said. “Their purpose is to serve those who move and shape the Earth we all live and rely on.”


Purpose isn’t just a marketing idea. It’s a philosophy or a way of doing business. And that engenders marketing that is inherently not only about selling, but about the customer’s relationship with the brand.

The companies with a defined purpose are “not just beloved by consumers, but they’re the best performing companies,” Raftus said. “Don’t think of this as a marketing thing. Think of this as the way to serve every stakeholder in your organization and improve business performance.”

Finding Your Purpose 

Agencies should approach defining their own place in the market, image, and mission in the same way brands do. And this means they also need a purpose — especially if they want to outlast the next digital trend or social media fad. 

So how can you find your agency’s purpose? Find is the important word in that sentence. 

As Raftus put it: “Purpose is discovered. And then it’s articulated. It’s not created.”

Start by understanding what you are passionate about and what you can be the best at. Figure out why your clients specifically chose your agency, and what sets you apart from their previous partners. And finally, ask yourself: Why do we exist? And what would people miss if we didn’t exist tomorrow?

Once you’ve uncovered and solidified your purpose, you have to commit. You need to write it in stone -- figuratively or literally as GSD&M has done. (Its values are engraved in stone in the agency’s lobby.) 

Finding your purpose shouldn’t just be an exercise in how you brand your agency or differentiate yourself. It’s not as simple as putting up a new slogan and description on your website’s “about” page. Discovering your purpose, and ultimately understanding the business you are in, should change the way you look at the overall purpose of advertising -- how you communicate for brands and with consumers. 

“We don’t believe an advertising agency should just put out ads,” Lenderman said. “We have a responsibility to culture. And that responsibility to culture was for a long time totally ignored. We influence a lot of people with messaging. And it’s about time that we influence people with messaging that matters — messaging that inspires rather than messaging that just gets people to buy more stuff.”

“The buying more stuff will get there,” he said. “People will patronize those brands they feel are doing good for the world. It’s how you ask them to do that. It’s how you tell the stories that are different.”


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