Companies are viruses – forging a career requires great people, not great brands

Steve Sammartino used to believe that great careers could only be built in great companies. These days he realises our loyalty to one another nurtures us further than any corporation or brand.

I remember graduating from university. The race with all the other freshly-qualified students to gain a graduate position with a leading FMCG firm was on. The type of firm that had big TV advertising budgets, modern four Ps marketing and golden handcuffs to boot. The type where people wanted to spend their entire marketing career, under the security of their corporate blanket.

These positions were difficult to come by, as it was believed that only firms like this could nurture great careers. I used to believe that great careers could only be built in a great company. That was until I realised that people have careers; companies have jobs.

‘We’re like a family here at Corporation X. Work-life balance matters in our firm. Work hard and Corporation X will look after you.’ How can a company look after a person when it isn’t even real? Let’s review what companies really are before we decide if they can help, look after or even nurture the people that move inside them.

Corporations are semi-fictional constructs created by people with the goal of accumulating money, power and influence, while removing their own personal and legal risks. They are not, as they often claim, bodies, people or anything real or human. The word ‘corporation’ itself is designed to obfuscate.

In many ways a company is a bit like a virus. It establishes itself inside the host (the market). If it is successful, the number of cells (employees) inside it grows. If the virus does well it spreads to other hosts (new markets). Cells within the virus might reproduce or die (employees come and go). The only thing that matters to the virus is self perpetuation. It doesn’t even care about its market hosts – corporations damage the environment with pollution, externalities, privacy invasions, dangerous products – so long as it continues to grow.

It doesn’t care about the cells it’s made of either, as long as there’s enough of them to get the job done and the new cells which arrive know how to operate in its system. If the host or the cells get damaged, it doesn’t care, so long as it continues to thrive and reproduce. That doesn’t sound very nurturing to me, let alone being able to have a human’s best interests in mind.

For anything to nurture, it needs to be able to feel. If it doesn’t feel it can’t nurture because it can’t experience empathy. A market can’t feel anything, it’s just a numerical construct where we measure things. The only thing that can feel the effects of a market’s movement are the people inside it. The people who lost or gained jobs, the people who had their river polluted or instituted protections to ensure their water stayed clean. So too, a brand can’t nurture its loyalists, but loyalists can certainly nurture a brand.

It’s the people that bring the humanity to the marketplace. If we want to start nurturing anything from a marketing perspective, we have to start with the things that can feel and that means that we can only ever nurture living things. Things that experience emotions such as pain, pleasure, sadness, joy, hope and fear. The brands, the buildings, the organisations and the markets are mere shells which should be built in a way that we can nurture one another.

So how do we build brands that operate on an emotional level when all the things we use, interact and transact in and use human terms to describe can’t feel anything? It’s actually simpler than it sounds. We need the courage to let people make human decisions and do the right thing by the people that operate within market constructs. We need to let humans make decisions that are outside of the Brand Manual and corporate policy.

If they’re right, regardless of the fact it may be contravening some policy designed for removing human intuition from decisions. We need to go rogue, operate like rogue cells and do what’s right for the other cells, even if it means we get attacked by other corporate drones. 

All this reminds me of how I’d work with my team members during my life as a manager in large Fortune 500 corporations. Whenever I hired anyone to work for me, on day one, I’d take them aside and tell them this: 

“The company we work for does not care about us. They don’t care about me, and they don’t care about you. But I’ll try and help you as a person and in your career. If that means you need to work elsewhere, I’ll help you get to a better place. If that means I need to be more loyal to you than to the company we work for, I’ll do that too. If your goal is to exit the corporate world and finally get to work on that start-up dream, then tell me how I can help. I’m here for you.

“In the end, companies will come and go. We’ll be inside one for a period, and then we’re gone. And the company won’t care. Moments after we leave the building, it will be as if we never existed. A few people will care, but the company can’t care, because it doesn’t feel anything. The thing that really matters while we are working together is each other. I hope that our relationship will outlast the company we now work for, so let’s look after each other first. If we have the courage to do this, the companies we work for will, ironically, always be a core beneficiary.”

This may sound counterintuitive, anti-corporate or maybe even disloyal. But in my experience it is the start of true loyalty and what the nature of human constructs should be about – the people inside them. It almost always ends up with better long-term outcomes in projects and businesses of any size. When the people are put first – customers, staff, employees, citizens, you name it – the benefits always lands on the organisation with the courage to do what’s right.

It’s where brands will need to start focusing again as we wade through a swamp of terms and conditions designed to trick people and dehumanise our interactions. The thing smart brands and organisations will be remembered for in the future is having people inside them who aren’t scared to bend or even break the rules of the place they manage.

Further Reading:

Image credit: Vlad Tchompalov

Steve Sammartino
BY Steve Sammartino ON 30 August 2019
Steve Sammartino is an author and futurist who sees the world through marketing eyes. He has held many senior marketing positions and has also built and sold his own startups. His latest venture is Sneaky Surf, which is bringing technology into the surf industry. His new book 'The Lessons School Forgot: How to hack your way through a technology revolution' is out now through Wiley. Connect with Steve and see his latest projects and blog at stevesammartino.com