Love or Hate it three: Adam Ferrier shines a sceptical light on purpose

“It’s not a real concept.” Industry heavyweight and chief thinker Adam Ferrier tells Marketing where his ‘purpose’ scepticism comes from and what he thinks we should be talking about instead.

This is part three in Marketing’s ‘Love or Hate it’ interview series with Warren Davies – exploring brand purpose with some of Australia’s leading marketing minds. Read part one, Davies’ chat with Powershop chief customer officer Catherine Anderson and part two, Davie’s chat with Domino’s chief procurement officer John Harney.

Brand purpose is currently the source of many debates across the table at brands and agencies – and in pretty much no pubs, buses or childcare centres (ever). Tired of the circular, cynical conversation about it online, we left the bubble this month to go a little deeper.

For this four-part series we’ll be speaking to four people in diverse roles that intersect marketing – a chief procurement officer for a global fast food chain, a chief customer officer, a 2018 Agency of the Year founder and perhaps the only chief purpose officer in Australia. We ask: Does purpose matter? Should we keep it to ourselves or run from the meeting room and hide under our desks?

In our first two conversations we met with people encouraging purpose at their organisation. It’s important to them. It means they get to work at the kind of organisation they want to work at, and believe the world needs. For a different point of view, we reached out to someone we thought might have a more cautious view on brands with purpose. In a single sentence response to our email, Adam Ferrier said, “I’d skew toward negative.”

Excellent. Let’s chat.

 

Warren Davies: What does purpose for business mean to you?

adam_ferrier_150 BWAdam Ferrier, founder and chief thinker at Thinkerbell: If I was writing an article about purpose I’d be slightly cringing and thinking, ‘oh my god – this is so ridiculous’. It does mean different things to different people. Sometimes the word ‘purpose’ is used as a category descriptor, sometimes it’s a positioning, sometimes it’s a higher-order purpose.

The whole thing is completely convoluted, airy fairy and not real. It’s not a real concept.

Not real compared to what?

Compared to a central organising thought. If there’s a central organising thought a business operates around, or the brand operates around, and everybody knows what that thought is and is able to communicate it? That works. To me it doesn’t matter if that thought is altruistic and good for the world, is utilitarian, is about one thing like low price or greening Australia – as long as everyone is clear on the central organising thought of the brand or the business – it’s probably a pretty good thing.

At its most extreme, somebody like Byron Sharp would say you don’t even need one of those, you just need to do your job and be distinctive. He would rob, almost, the whole marketing context of its soul. I wouldn’t go anywhere near that far, though. When I hear the word ‘purpose’, as long as it’s used as a mission, what that business is going to achieve, or for a central organising thought, then I’m happy. I don’t care what you call it. Everyone knows what to do.

Is a central organising thought or purpose useful to businesses or brands?

Yeah, 100%. The more clear it is, the more aligned people are with what they are doing and how they are doing it in their own special way – it creates efficiencies and growth. It saves time and effort, you have people doing the wrong thing less often. It creates growth – people know when interesting ideas are right for that business or not. You can find your boundaries, be more attention-getting, or whatever you want those ideas to be.

You’ll find with the discourse around this, half the conversations will be around doing good and the other half will be about purpose and brand positioning. And they’re two completely different conversations.

If a business came to you and said ‘this is what we want to do, this is our purpose’, how would you warn them off it or straighten them up?

Oh, I wouldn’t straighten them up. If it’s valuable to the organisation we’ll work with it. We’ll ask them what it is, ask them to explain it to us. Then we’ll ask if the problem is with people understanding it or around internal alignment, or if it’s around communicating it. What do they want our help with?

Can we talk about Nike and Colin Kaepernick?

I kind of see that work as like pruning a shrub. ‘We’ll cut back a little here and really say we’re for equal opportunity. We might piss off a bunch of people over there, but it’s like pruning a tree, you cut back a little bit but it makes the tree a lot stronger.’

Everyone knows the shape of it. And I reckon the opportunities to do that are very rare. You really need to know what the brand is about, you need to see those opportunities and act on them. A bit of brand pruning will make the shrub more defined and stronger.

It all comes back to that central organising thought. 

Purpose is a topic that current generations care about more than previous ones, how do you handle that?

Every generation of consumers is less marketing-savvy than the generation before. The people that understood what good business is were our grandparents. They understood the difference between a good brand, a good reputation and a good person.

A business being purpose-driven and knowing that it’s also good for business is something to condone. Is the cost of doing that worth it? It probably is. For brands like Patagonia that do that very well, I’d argue that it’s about being clear on what the brand does and stands for, rather than if they have a purpose or not. It’s not about being good or not, it’s about having clarity about what you stand for.

 

Further Reading:

 

 

 

 

Image credit: Colin Kaepernick

Warren Davies
BY Warren Davies ON 30 May 2019
Warren Davies is a founder and managing director at Melbourne creative agency Pretty Neat.