In this instance B stands for Benefit, although you could be forgiven for thinking it stands for Bane, after you’ve spent a year getting your agency in order to submit your application to become a certified B Corporation, which we finally did last week. Yet despite the faff, it’s something I’m immensely proud of doing, far more so than any award we’ve won.
What underpins the B Corp movement is a belief that businesses can and should be a force for good. Moving beyond simply making a return for shareholders, the B Corp community works to reduce inequality, lower levels of poverty, create a healthier environment, stronger communities and more jobs with dignity and purpose.
While certifications like Fairtrade are given to products like bananas, B Corp certification looks at a business as a whole, peeling back the skin of Banana Corp to reveal what’s within.
The B Corp movement has spread like wildfire across America, and is starting to take hold here in the UK too, with the likes of Innocent and the Guardian having recently becoming certified. In fact, the B Corp directory is starting to read like a list of dream clients.
Not enough impact
I went into the process somewhat cocksure. I had set up Nice and Serious 10 years ago to ‘Make creative work the world needs’. We do comms and marketing for charities and sustainable brands, so I assumed we would breeze through the process. It wasn’t as if we were in the coal mining business. But as it turns out, I was wrong; there was a mountain to climb.
You set out by using the B Impact Assessment tool which evaluates how your agency’s operations and business model impacts your staff, the community, the environment and your customers. Doing a bit of pro-bono work, carbon offsetting a few flights, or writing a lofty purpose statement won’t cut it.
Making a big commitment
The tool made me realise that there were so many areas of our agency’s impact that I hadn’t considered, from having an official code of ethics to proper financial transparency with the team, to supplier screening and a breastfeeding policy. And it wasn’t enough to make hollow promises. In order to get above the minimum threshold of 80 points, policies need to be in place and rolled out across the business. As someone who recoils at the idea of more paperwork and processes, there were times I wanted to pack it in and set fire to V5 of our environment policy in protest.
But we had a dedicated group within the agency who wanted to see it through, so with grit and determination, we continued the climb. Nearing the summit, there was one final rockface to scale, amending our legal governing documents, our articles of association, to require the company directors to balance both profit and purpose. This is often the stumbling block for many businesses, as it sends a clear message to shareholders that the business cannot simply pursue profits at any cost, that the directors have a duty to manage and reduce social and environmental impacts. I genuinely respect those running big businesses who have convinced their shareholders for the need to change. In my eyes that’s real leadership.
The way the wind is blowing
The nature of agencies is that we operate on behalf of our clients’ businesses. While in most instances our clients have a far-greater impact than our own operations, we don’t exist in a bubble. We have offices that exist within communities, we hire people with personal lives and career aspirations, we buy electricity to keep the lights on, we purchase water and food to keep our team functioning, and ideas, our output, help our clients to grow.
With the rise of the brilliant Purpose Disruptors, along with XR’s nudge, there’s a groundswell of concerned creative folk wanting to challenge briefs and encourage our clients to be more purposeful, to back causes, to stand for something. So, it’s never been more important to get our houses in order, if not for fear of the pot calling the kettle black.
The business case
When you acknowledge the scale of environmental and social problems we face, it’s hard not to see the business case in taking action. And to me, B Corp gives a comprehensive framework and stamp of approval to set your agency on the right course. But if that sounds too soft for you, here’s a more hard-nosed reason.
Last week we lost out on a pitch from one of those dream clients that everyone wants to work with. On the obligatory awkward feedback call, the client gave three reasons why they had chosen the other agency. I suspect the first two reasons were the usual British half-truths designed not to shatter our precious egos, but the third was that the winning agency was a B Corp. And it totally stands to reason that the world’s most progressive and pioneering brands, the ones that we all want to work for, will increasingly want their agencies to reflect their own values.
As our application pends, I think we’re at a critical moment in the history of our industry. And we have a chance to set a new course. Agencies will fall into two camps; those who choose to take meaningful action to tackle the problems they’ve created, and those who continue with business as usual until, one way or another, it's too late.
This piece originally appeared online in Creative Brief BITE,
18th November 2019.