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Purpose has arguably fast become the most overused and misunderstood term in advertising. However, Andy Last, CEO of MullenLowe salt is determined to prove that tackling social issues can drive business growth.
In the midst of increasingly polarised public opinion, the role of ‘purpose driven’ marketing is hotly contested. While critics have been quick to condem brands for ‘virtue-signalling’ or ‘purpose-washing’, Andy Last, CEO of MullenLowe salt, believes that purpose and profit do not have to be mutually exclusive pursuits.
Last has been at the forefront of the shift towards purpose-driven marketing and business at large. “What we could do was help brands and businesses discover how addressing relevant issues in the world can make them successful,” he explains. The agency’s origins in “making the complex simple and the simple compelling” give it a firm base from which to advise brands on making a difference.
While the term purpose has become increasingly popular in recent years, 15 years ago, when Last founded the agency with Richard Cox, they were relative pioneers in this space. Yet even today the intention to help brands discover how addressing issues in the world could help them grow, remains core to the agency’s ethos.
We believe firmly that tackling social issues is a way of driving growth for a brand in all sorts of different ways.Andy Last
The reality was, says Last, that their decision to lead with purpose at their core “was client-led in lots of ways.” With Unilever one of their founding clients, Last reveals that they took their cue from the brand: “They were tackling social issues in order to drive growth.” Having worked in the PR industry for many years, Last “had a fundamental belief that communicating through third parties added credibility and reach, [making it] a very important thing for businesses to do.”
Fundamentally, Last believes that helping brands champion social causes is important from a business perspective, not simply for their CSR: “[We believe in] helping brands and businesses engage in social issues in order to drive growth, not as CSR philanthropy but we believe firmly that tackling social issues is a way of driving growth for a brand in all sorts of different ways.”
Last was adamant that, for salt, which was acquired by MullenLowe Group in 2017, to succeed, they had to find a point of differentiation from the rest of the marketplace. This is something that he believes is key to both client, and talent, retention.
He explained, “If what you’re offering is different, then clients working with you are more likely to stay with you over a longer period of time. Be clear about that offering and constantly innovating to keep it differentiated.”
That clarity of messaging is something the agency has continued to perfect and develop over the years, getting to a point where, for them, “We don’t create purpose for a brand; we help them find it.”
What we wanted to do was differentiate ourselves, demonstrate we were in it for real, that we practiced what we preached.Andy Last
One of the principal ways MullenLowe salt set itself apart from other agencies was, when the B Corp movement arrived in the UK, they were one of the first businesses to certify. As a company that was founded on the desire to find purpose within brands, the agency decided it was time to practice what they preached.
Last explains, “What became clear in 2015 was a lot of agencies [were] beginning to use the P-word and talk about purpose…what we wanted to do was differentiate ourselves, demonstrate we were in it for real, that we practiced what we preached. And we needed to do more than us just saying that.”
B Corp companies put people and planet on an equal footing with profits, effectively creating a “triple bottom line” for businesses: social, environmental, economical. As the website outlines, it is “A global movement of people using business as a force for good.” To become certified, a business must go through a rigorous accreditation process that examines the environmental and social impact of its business activities.
There are now 3,000 B Corps globally, with a combined turnover of $63.7 billion. High profile B Corps include Patagonia and Natura which owns the Body Shop. In the UK, there are 217 B Corps, up from just six in 2014. The conversation inside businesses, especially across the advertising and communications landscape, has shifted dramatically, with businesses recognising that today success looks decidedly different to what it did twenty, thirty years ago.
For Last and his agency team, they noticed the direction their clients were moving in, and felt they had to match it. He adds, “agencies need to be responsive to where their clients are headed.”
Whatever the size of company, it has to be able to offer something more purposeful.Andy Last
What the agency didn’t realise, “the unforeseen consequence” as Last puts it, is that certifying the company through B Corp would also be good for attracting talent. The certification is something that people mention in interviews and that has also become a good motivator for those already working at the agency. It wasn’t the reason why the agency chose to certify, but it’s a nice addition, as Last puts it.
The industry’s hiring pool has shifted to now include both millennials and Gen Zs. These are the generations that have grown up understanding social issues and have brought urgency to the climate emergency. Their expectations, of both the workplace and of businesses’ behaviour in general, are different to the generations that came before. Indeed, Last believes that “whatever the size of company, it has to be able to offer something more purposeful.”
Last is conscious of not wanting to sound too worthy when he discusses the importance of purpose. For him, it just makes business sense. Yet he is adamant that business needs to change in order to retain younger talent. He explains, “You’ve got whole generations growing up now for whom climate change is a reality. So, the notion that companies can ignore things like that, can ignore global supply chains is nonsense. So therefore, taking a grip on that, going on the front foot and understanding not just your responsibility to the world but the opportunity that creates [is vital].”
Our purpose is to drive positive change through communications and that runs through all the external programmes...But then that’s internal too.Andy Last
The purpose-led conversation has shifted over the last two years, as it extends not only to visible, external company communications but also to internal policy. For MullenLowe salt, this is exactly where their work excels, by addressing both issues.
Business is moving in this direction, believes Last, because of pressure from both consumers and employees. Last adds, “Our purpose is to drive positive change through communications and that runs through all the external programmes, helping brands themselves grant positive change in what they do and how they communicate. But then that’s internal too so you need to drive that within the company itself.” The agency has started an internal social drive to improve the mental health of the workforce, intent on demonstrating their purpose rather than just talking about it.
The backbone of MullenLowe salt lies in helping brands to drive growth through tackling social issues. This is the way Last belives business is going. It is exemplified in brands like Tony’s Chocolonely that are holding bigger companies, like Cadbury, to account when it comes to the cocoa supply chain.
The agency worked alongside Mondelez, Cadbury’s parent company, to develop a new brand that addresses cocoa sustainability. Last talked through the difficulties that come with such a “complex” supply chain, as cocoa is typically grown in parts of the world where “there are no educational facilities, there is endemic poverty, the government structures aren’t necessarily in place.”
The reality is that, while NGOs have the answers to problems, they don’t have the resources to solve them, and nor, typically, do many of the governments in countries where cocoa is grown. Last explains, “the big chocolate companies, people like Mondelez, they are the people who can make a difference. Firstly, because they’ve got the scale and secondly because it is absolutely in their interest to ensure a sustainable supply of cocoa.”
MullenLowe salt developed a new brand, Cocoa Life to take everything complicated about cocoa sustainability and turn it into “an easy to understand brand.” What was vital is that this brand was robust enough for investors, employees and consumers. For Last, the work embodied the principle that the agency was founded on, to make the complex simply and the simple compelling. And now? “Cocoa Life is now seen as a central part of Mondelez business,” adds Last.
There is pressure from consumers, regulators, campaigners, employees and increasingly the investment community now too, on business to demonstrate its purpose, to demonstrate its place in the world.Andy Last
Last feels that “Every brand can have a purpose.” But the agency’s role is not about creating purpose for brands. Instead, “our job is to understand what the business drivers are for them, to dig around and uncover the purpose and then create the best ways to bring it to life. Bringing it to life can’t just be talking about it; it has to be doing as well,” adds Last.
It is this point that Last is most adamant about. That words can only take a business so far; at the end of the day, both agencies and their clients need to practice what they preach. The intention must be there as well as the proof. To be successful, a business’ purpose needs to be communicated, says Last, “in a modern, creative, effective way.” The antithesis of ‘virtue-signalling’ or ‘purpose-washing’; the criticisms so often laid at the creative industry’s door.
As we see more agencies beginning to have conversations about B Corp certification or simply using the word purpose more in their communications, it seems Last’s predications made at the turn of the millennium ring true. That when a business invests in a social cause that aligns with their own, this is not only simply a good thing to do but it can also bring about greater success for the business itself.
Although arguably one of the most overused marketing terms of the past few years, purpose is not going anywhere. Far from being a flash-in-the-pan trend, this is a fundamental shift in business. As Last explains, “There is pressure from consumers, regulators, campaigners, employees and increasingly the investment community now too, on business to demonstrate its purpose, to demonstrate its place in the world.”
It is a shift that Last hopes will lead more agencies to opening themselves to greater scrutiny and investing in becoming B Corp certified. A creative future rooted in purpose and transparency which could well provide the roots for a creative reinvigoration for the industry.
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