I thought we’d build more schools than this. My advertising agency, aptly called School, has a mission to fund projects for impoverished kids across the world and has partnered with Pencils of Promise to build schools in Guatemala, Laos and Ghana.
When we started the agency a little over two years ago, we set out to build 50 schools before we celebrated our tenth anniversary. So far, we’ve built two schools and I’m worried.
I’m worried because I perhaps misguidedly equate our dearth of school-building output with our dearth of belief in a purpose-based model for an ad agency.
After all, the industry in which I find myself has no shortage of meaninglessness. There’s a lot of baggage to discard in order to convince people that a business that is perceived as base and manipulative could actually be true to a purpose beyond getting us to buy more shit.
School is meant to be an agency that changes this perception, and along with our compatriots at shops like Fear Not, Purpose, Matter, Common and others, we see a future where our work on behalf of our clients would be judged as much by its positive impact for our world as it is by the positive impact on the bottom line (agency and client equally).
When School first launched within the Project:WorldWide network, I was asked to speak at the Forbes CMO Conference where I told the audience that “purpose is the new digital.” It has the same transformative powers on business and culture. For us at School, having a clear and concise purpose has helped attract top-notch young talent, giving them an incentive to do great work over the promise of bonuses or award show submissions. Our purpose has provided the agency with a unique point-of-view and reason-to-believe, a distinction that is pivotal in an industry that is marked by me-too capabilities and interchangeable churn in talent and clients.
But has our purpose given us more business? I’m worried that it hasn’t. And if we don’t get the business, how the fuck are we going to build another 48 schools?
Admittedly, I worry a lot. And often, the worry is wholly unjustifiable. School works with some very incredible brands. And more importantly, we work with people at these brands that have “fire in their eyes.” That’s a phrase delivered to me by IDEO’s Paul Bennett, who graciously gave me some time for advice as I was just starting out with the concept of School.
I am often struck by how many times I am reminded of this phrase as I work with our clients. There really are people out there who get it, who understand how brands must now act in our world. To be among these people everyday – and the teams of talent who work at School – is exquisitely inspiring.
We also have clients who come to us only for the work. They don’t come to us for a purpose. They want creativity to solve their business problems, not solve humanity’s. So we go into pitches touting ideas not ideology.
In these scenarios, does having a purpose help us win the business? In all honesty, no. Purpose may inform our ideas, but it won’t guarantee success against other agencies. Relying on purpose to win a pitch is like relying on a very sharp knife in a very large gunfight.
But whereas purpose may not be a panacea for new business, it has helped School in so many other ways. First, selfishly, this endeavor lets me fall asleep with gratitude in my heart and ideas in my head. That’s a great way to end the day, and I’m fortunate to get it.
Having a purpose also gives the agency a cutting-edge vibe. We really think we’re ahead of our time. It also gives us deep belief in the work that we do, shared by the people that have joined us at School, and that belief means everything. It drives our culture. And in an industry environment of parity among agencies – coupled with the transient and incestuous nature of creatives and strategists – unique culture for an agency is imperative. And in my humble opinion, giving meaning to the work beyond awards and bonuses is a prime driver of culture.
But look, starting a purpose-based agency hasn’t been easy. Hell, starting anything in this business isn’t easy either. I bet every agency leader can attest to this. Attaching an unproven concept like purpose to the ad agency model may seem daft to some, fake to others. For me, the idea is a noble one. And noble ideas require action.
I know that my fellow Schoolmates would agree to this wholeheartedly. And I know that it hasn’t been easy for them either. Which is why I am full of hope and optimism and vim and vigor. I know that the sacrifices they have made this year can only point us all into the reason why we made them in the first place: to build more schools.
So maybe I’m not worried after all. Maybe we’re exactly in the place we want to be. That I’m exactly in the place I want to be. It’s hard to accept but it’s easy to intuit. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll stop worrying so much this year.