Right on the money

Corporate social responsibility may be here to stay, but clients will only consider a sustainable approach when the profit is taken care of, says Alex Willcock

Gone are the days when there were a small number of design consultancies doing extraordinary work. The UK is overflowing with exceptional talent – in fact, it never ceases to amaze me how much incredibly good work is created.

As a result, differentiation is becoming a problem for design groups. So too is the increasing demand for a more socially responsible approach to business.

What’s interesting, though, is that the problems are even bigger for our clients. As the market and competition grows tougher, so do our new business people. We innovate to get through the door, only to find almost all our potential clients are over-subscribed and, invariably, battered and bruised from the experience. When clients get bored with approaches, you know you have a problem. The challenge is making sure you’ve got something they want from you, rather than the other way around. Perhaps corporate social responsibility is one of those things?

So what to do? How do you make yourself known and desired? Are socially responsible initiatives going to make a difference to your fortunes?

It’s time more creative businesses started to make a stand for positive and sustainable change. This is not just a fad. It’s here to stay. At least it had better be, because if it’s not, then neither are we. Just don’t treat it as a fad and try to fluff your way through. You’ll be rumbled, so beware.

When Russell Pinch and I set up The Nest with Rachel Marshall in 1999, we did so with high ideals. We were determined to bring a form of social conscience to design. The background to this was when I was with the Conran group (then Conran Studio), where I helped found a school in India for children that had been working in the brass industry (http://www.askindia.org/serv_wcdunit.asp).

It was visiting this school for the first time that inspired me to leave corporate life and start a creative agency that aimed to make a difference. Some of our new business pitches were hysterical. Certain clients looked at me as if I was mad. You know the scenario: they look at you as if you have a big bogey hanging out of your nose, but they’re too mean to tell you.

A huge retailer came in to ask us to revamp its communications. Having asked the company about its strategy, I explained to them why we set the consultancy up. We later learned that my opening remarks had blown that pitch right out of the water. ‘Bugger’ was about all I could say that day. We were apparently not suitable because a commitment to positive change was not something the company cared about. Right on.

Another classic example was pitching to an international retailer that’s ‘known’ for its ethical stance. The guy we met said something like, ‘I don’t give a f*** about that stuff – I just want to know whether you can design great packaging!’

Times have certainly changed. Certain things haven’t, however, and in my experience, never will. So here are a few pointers that may be worth considering if you are thinking of moving towards a socially responsible approach.

First, whatever happens, no matter how right on you or your consultancy are, you’ve got to make sure everyone is focused on making your clients more money. One of my mottos used to be, ‘We never forget that we are here to help you make more profit’. It was only then that I’d talk about using less packaging or whatever it was at the time.

Second, you need to make sure you really know what you are talking about. Just reading a few books or articles is not going to wash. Most major corporations have highly skilled and intelligent people in their CSR teams. In fact, they’re usually the cleverest (and nicest) people in the entire organisation, trained from birth to smell a greenwash rat.

Third, you need to make sure your team shares your values. Only employ people who are interested in these sorts of things. It may sound a bit idealistic, but it works. Try to make sure that as much as possible, you practice what you preach.

Fourth, be bold and brave. Put your neck on the line and don’t be afraid to say what you think. If it’s what you believe, then you’re only going to lose the ones you shouldn’t be working with anyway.

Finally, try to start your own initiatives. Nothing is more attractive than a consultancy that’s doing it for themselves.

Getting sustainable right

1 Before ‘going sustainable’ you must make sure your team is focused on making your clients more money.

2 Make sure you really know what you are talking about.

3 Instill your values across the team.

4 Employ people who are interested in ‘sustainable’ issues.

5 Don’t be afraid to say what you think.

6 Start your own initiatives.

Alex Willcock founded The Nest in 1999. He and the three other shareholders sold it to St. Luke’s in November 2004. He now provides strategic consultancy to The Nest, one day per week and is developing a number of other business interests

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