Purpose in progress – one year later with Afdhel Aziz

Marketing catches up with author and purpose expert Afdhel Aziz to hear about his lessons, progress and return to Australia.

Since co-authoring Good is the New Cool in 2016, Afdhel Aziz has become an international keynote speaker and cofounder of the Conspiracy of Love consultancy, working with big brands and start-ups alike, to help them find the sweet spot where good cause meets business success.

Marketing spoke with Aziz last year, about his philosophy, his background and what excites him in the space. This time, we uncover the learning and development he’s seen in the space, as well as hearing more about his upcoming Australian appearance at the Good Is The New Cool event in Melbourne and Sydney.

Marketing: It has been a year since we spoke. What has changed and excited you since then?

Afdhel Aziz 150 BWAfdhel Aziz: Right now this idea of purpose, business and social impact has never been more mainstream. That’s reflected in the size of the kinds of companies that are now talking about it. You know, companies like Nike are stepping into this mix. The space is reaching a maturity. It’s going beyond phase one – which was about marketing and advertising, if you will – to really now being around profitability and growth.

Now you have amazing case studies like Adidas proving the business case with purpose. I think when I spoke in Australia, Adidas had just launched the ocean plastic shoes as this collaboration with Parley For the Oceans.

It was pretty fresh then, yes.

At that point I think it had done maybe 7000 pairs of shoes, and this year it’s on track to doing 11 million pairs of shoes. It’s going to generate about US$2 billion in revenue from it. To me that’s a shining example of how businesses are really switching on to the idea that solving social and environmental problems can be profitable. And the more money they make, the more of the problem they can solve. So a lot of the work that we’re now doing with Conspiracy of Love is now approaching it from that perspective. How can purpose unlock growth and profitability in your companies? And doing that through an innovation.

The other really interesting thing that has exploded is purpose on the employee side. Companies are waking up to how important it is to motivate existing employees and to recruit the best new employees as well. The new normal, we say, is ‘purpose and a paycheque’. You’ve got to pay them fairly. Give them good benefits and everything, but all else being equal, all the data shows that people are going to pick a company that shows them how what they do drives meaning as much as money.

And going even a step beyond that, you’re now seeing the rise of white collar worker activism. Employee activism like the Google walkout. Could you ever have imagined 20,000 white collar Google employees walking out in protest against the way Google handled, in this case, sexual harassment allegations? These aren’t blue collar workers who are walking out. They aren’t miners and nurses and bus drivers. These are white collar employees. Companies are now having to really take their value seriously and not just have it be pretty words on a PowerPoint but really back it up because they have a new constituency of people inside that company who are going to hold them accountable.

It’s just a fascinating time for all this to happen. And that’s why we realised there was a gap. There was such a hunger and an appetite to learn about this stuff, how to do it right, how to do it well. And that’s why we created the Good is the New Cool conferences. We had the first one in in Los Angeles in March of this year at the TOMS Shoes headquarters. We had 200 people show up, from major brands like Apple, Adidas, MillerCoors and others, really progressive nonprofits as well as people from the worlds of culture, fashion, food and film.

Our goal is to create a day of inspiration and innovation. To inspire people by showing them examples of people who had gone on their own purpose journey.

The innovation part is where we give them an interactive masterclass on how to do it in their own jobs, their own careers and their own companies. The formula worked really well. That’s why we decided to work with our wonderful partners, which is Usual Suspects Creative who came to the LA Conference and with UnLtd. UnLtd and CEO Chris Freel have been wonderful partners to us in Australia. They said, ‘we want to do Good is the New Cool.’ I thought they meant like in 2020, but they said, ‘no, we need to bring it to Australia now.’

So in four weeks we’re doing these two events, one in Sydney, one in Melbourne.

Related: Five lessons from the heart – what rural New South Wales taught UnLtd CEO Chris Freel »
rural australia landscape Freel

Your background is in advertising. Now that companies are recognising the value purpose brings to their organisations, how has your role changed? As a consultant you’re now also working with them internally to get their employees more engaged. Has this been a big learning experience?

We do three things at Conspiracy. Number one, we call it discovering or defining purpose. So that’s the most upstream module. We do six-week innovation sprints. This is a process for companies or brands which don’t have a purpose to discover and define it, or in some cases to rediscover or redefine it, to have a really powerful north star to guide everything.

Offering number two is called designing purpose. This is where we help companies come up with purpose driven initiatives. That could be new product innovation, new technology, new platforms; anything but advertising, we say. It’s totally fine to wrap [the product/outcome] in advertising, PR and social, but this one is not an advertising-centric output. It must genuinely solve social or environmental problems.

Offering number three is inspiring purpose, which is really about making the link between individual employees’ purpose and that of the company.

This is kind of an ‘aha’ moment for us after a couple of years of doing this: there was no use in a company having a very noble purpose if the people inside didn’t believe it. That’s really what makes the difference between the purpose-driven companies out there that are winning – the Teslas, Patagonia and A‌i‌r‌b‌n‌b‌s of the world – and the ones that talk about it but haven’t quite unleashed it. So we have an offering called GPS to Purpose, which is a two-hour workshop where we take teams of anywhere from 100 to 200 employee groups. In two hours we take them on a journey to find out what their own individual purpose could be and find a way to link it to that of the company.

We’ve done that now with companies like Facebook in Australia, with Microsoft and the North Face here in the US. It’s honestly the most transformational thing I’ve seen. When you show people… when you give permission to show up with their whole selves at work and allow them to reveal to their fellow employees who they really are, something magical happens. People feel heard and seen for the first time, and there’s a sense of bonding and camaraderie between them.

There’s a sense of empowerment. What the company is saying to them is this: ‘we want you to be exactly who you are at work and we want you to bring those passions and those things you really care about into your work so that it can eventually help us.’

It can lead to, in the best cases, employees finding innovative new ways to do their jobs. It can lead to things which can actually trickle profitability and growth for the company as well. This, to me, is almost like the Holy Grail. How do you get beyond strategy and make it culture? That’s where one of the next frontiers for purpose lies.

The movement has hit the mainstream but many brands still get it wrong. What considerations should people have for getting purpose right?

We say purpose has to work inside out. The starting point for any conversation that we have is, look, if you’re going to talk about a particular issue, you better make damn sure your own house is in order before you start going out there preaching to the public, because the first thing they’re going to say is, ‘well, who are you to tell me what to do and what’s your record on this?’

So if you’re going to have an initiative around gender pay equality, you better make sure that your own company is in a good place when it comes to paying your female employees the same as men. There was the famous example of Audi in 2017 running Super Bowl ads about putting women in the driver’s seat, but I don’t think Audi had any women on its board.

So people turned up and went, ‘what are you talking about? This is just bullshit.’ Making purpose needs to be working inside out and getting your own house in order is absolutely crucial. I think the other mistake brands make is they make themselves the hero of the conversation. There’s a wonderful idea that a guy called Justin Dillon had: you’ve got to be the helper not the hero. And what this means is for brands, rather than saying, ‘hey look at us, aren’t we awesome? We did this good thing, now pat us on the back,’  you’ve got to be much more humble.

Think about people as citizens, not consumers. Think about problems that they may have in their lives that you as a brand can help fix. Hold your hand up and say, ‘we’re not perfect, but we really want to try and solve this problem. Will you help us?’ Then create a platform which consumers and collaborators and partners can all gather around to help fix a social problem. It’s a much better approach than putting yourself in the spotlight and making yourself the hero of this particular initiative. So those are two very simple things that we really ask brands to think about and it makes a huge difference.

The other trend that has taken off is the idea of brand storytelling. Purpose-led brands are playing heavily in the space and a big part of it is empowering your customers to tell your story for you. How can we better empower our customers to get on board our purpose?

We touch on it in the book a little bit, but the other big factor brands need to take into account is the disintegration of the traditional advertising model. In some markets it’s more advanced than others, but you have to look at all the trends and see where this is going. When people are switching to ad-free streaming platforms. In my house we don’t have cable TV, we only have Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and HBO. My five-year-old son never has to see an ad on his TV screen ever again.

Paradise.

It is. In fact, I have to explain it to him when we go on holiday and we go into a hotel room and he’s watching regular TV. I have to explain to him what the commercials are because he just gets annoyed by them. So he’s growing up in a world with no ads on TV.

Look at all the data on how people are increasingly choosing to live in ad free environments online, whether that’s installing ad blocking software or just finding closed messaging groups to chat on. You see the writing on the wall for the traditional definition of advertising, right, which is a one way message from a brand disrupting your attention span and trying to sell something to you?

A much more sophisticated way to do it is to, first of all, genuinely solve a problem. Try and create that sense of trying to be of service to a community, then give people in that community the tools to tell the story on your behalf. Give them content, give them short-form, long-form, social media, video content. If you do something that’s genuinely powerful and meaningful and makes a difference in the world, then they’ll share that content with the world and say ‘look at this. This is why I support this brand. This is why I love this brand, what they’re doing. I’m signing up to do this. Will you help?’

Then you’re getting that pure word of mouth, which is the most valuable thing a marketer can get.

The difference now is, because of platforms like Facebook and Instagram and all the social media channels, what we call weaponised word-of-mouth. Word-of-mouth at scale. Brands need to come up with a different definition of storytelling, so it’s collaborative, you’re doing it in conjunction with people. So it is being of service. So it’s not selling something, it’s genuinely useful and delightful. It’s a tricky skill to learn if you’re so used to being the big brand that tells people how they should think about you.

It’s a totally different skill set, but if you do it right you trigger one of the other principles in our book, which is ‘people are the new media’. Today, there’s nothing more powerful than word-of-mouth at scale to really give a genuine endorsement of your brand and do it in an unprecedented way on a global level.

Tell us about the event.

A criteria for inviting people to come and speak at the conference was: are they doing something fresh and innovative and is it an idea worth scaling? Is it something that’s really powerful that other companies can learn from? That’s where we have speakers from multinational companies like Microsoft coming and talking about the incredible work they’re doing around disability and innovation, creating apps and things like that for the visually disabled.

We have Dr Kate Ringvall from Ikea, which doing a magnificent job of retooling its company for the circular economy by creating initiatives like biodegradable packaging. We also have some amazing Australian brands that we love. We have Kirk Pereira from Thankyou, who is doing an amazing job of leverage its consumers to become its best advocates.

We have Tim Baxter from Who Gives a Crap, such a cheeky brand and such a remarkable story of growth.

We have Kari Allen, from Sparkke, the amazing female-owned brewery, who’ll talk about ‘vice to virtue’. Each time, our goal is to show the people who are just at the vanguard of this purpose revolution, inspire you with their stories and then also crucially give you these 40 minute interactive sessions where you can sit in a room with them one-on-one and ask them questions about how they’re doing it so you can reapply it to your work. We have a tremendous lineup of people  and I can’t wait to get down there and have these two amazing days.

Good is the New Cool is partnering with UnLtd for a pair of events in Melbourne and SydneyMarketing is proud to have UnLtd as its Content Partner. UnLtd brings the Australian media, marketing and advertising industries together to tackle a big issue: undoing youth disadvantage. We urge you to visit unltd.org.au and get involved.

Image credit Caterina Beleffi on Unsplash

Ben Ice
BY Ben Ice ON 26 July 2019
Ben Ice is editor at MarketingMag