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WTF is a “good company” anyway?

+AMSSeptember 8th 2021

W+K Amsterdam’s Managing Director Blake Harrop and Social Impact Director Luke Purdy delve into what makes a good company in an increasingly complex cultural landscape. They talk about why W+K Amsterdam decided to review its own moral compass and why the next steps following the B Corp certification are critical to becoming an all-round better business.

There’s a scene in the movie Elf where Will Ferrell’s character sees a sign on a New York diner that says “World’s Best Cup of Coffee”, so he walks in and earnestly congratulates the confused staff on making the world’s best coffee. It’s a great moment in the film, and funny to see someone so earnestly believing an ad. The stakes are pretty low for an over-optimistically advertised cup of coffee, but how about other products?

Take energy. Exxon does a lot of advertising to tell the world about the $3 billion it is investing in carbon capture technology through to 2025. That’s laudable, but how should we then reconcile the $16 billion they are investing in oil exploration during the same period?

And how about big tobacco? In 2003 planet earth’s largest cigarette manufacturer Philipp Morris rebranded as Altria and trademarked the term Moving Beyond Smoking, which sounds great. The $100 million they proposed this year to the US FDA to convince people that nicotine doesn’t cause cancer, not so much. It’s great that companies attempt to improve themselves, because society doesn’t function without companies, and trade makes the world a safer, more interdependent place.

But when all brands are shouting loudly to say they’re on the right side of social issues, companies are convincing employees that they are purpose driven, and consumers are being told that they can vote for the future they want with their wallets; what the hell are we supposed to believe?

Until capitalism evolves into whatever version of itself comes next (stakeholder capitalism? human-centric capitalism? conscious-capitalism?) we’re going to depend on brands to do the right thing, and we’re going to continue making daily choices about which ones are best.

Given these dynamics, if you want to be a responsible ad agency in the world today you’re going to need a really good moral compass. Convince tens of millions of consumers to feel good about an oil company’s 2050 carbon-neutral plan with a nice ad, and you put the human race at risk. As an industry, agencies and brands alike have the reach and influence to make a meaningful difference in the world. Take Wieden+Kennedy’s office in Amsterdam, for example, a company made up of over 120 people who make ads for some of the largest multinational companies on the planet. The reach we have is huge, which is why it is so important that we turn up to work each day trying to do good, find the truth, and create responsible and entertaining messaging.

In 2020 we decided to review our own moral compass to ensure it can hold up in today’s increasingly complex cultural landscape. We started by redefining success, from being a company defined by what we make to one defined by our impact. Next, we initiated the rigorous business impact assessment with B Corp, a movement we felt our values aligned well with.

We like that the B Corp certification encourages more whole-systems thinking and the top-down audit of our office was as we hoped, an incredibly enlightening experience. We found out the areas where we do a good job of using our business for good (worker benefits), as well as the areas where we could do better (we suck at measuring our environmental impact). The process gave us the opportunity to level set where we are as a company and better plan where we would like to get to. A full year after initiating the assessment, our W+K Amsterdam office was officially certified as a B Corp.

So where do we go from here? While certification is a nice moment of recognition, the next steps are more important to our efforts of becoming an all-around better business. To keep us progressing as a company we’ve laid out five key areas of focus:

  1. Transparency Committing to transparency on social impact. We’re based in Amsterdam and need to adhere to Dutch laws around employee data privacy, but where we can share data on our impact and performance on social issues, we will. You can also see our B Corp audit results here and we’re committing to improving our score when we repeat the B Corp assessment in three years time.
  2. Measurement We recently created a new position in our office, appointing a Social Impact Director to ensure continual progress is made to establish and meet sustainability goals that have a direct impact on our business success. From this role we now have a system for measuring our social impact on an annual basis through the work we do with our client roster and we have set internal office initiatives to ensure we are improving in all areas of our operations. We have also become signatories to industry organizations that publish data on issues of sustainability (e.g. Green Screen Productions) and EDI (e.g. The 3% Conference, Free The Work).
  3. Partnerships Our Social Impact Director will help us seek out more industry organizations to support and become signatories to, as well as reevaluate and redefine our new business strategy to find like minded brands to partner with. We will also continue to establish policies and standards with existing partners.
  4. Participation As a newly certified B Corp, our Amsterdam office is exploring ways to stay involved in the B Lab Europe community. As a network, W+K has begun the certification process of all eight offices and we hope to become globally certified sometime in 2022.
  5. Fun We’re not an NGO, nor do we have an interest in creating preachy campaigns that cause everyone to click skip ad. Our focus lies in creating space to make great work on the brands we have in the building. You can’t make fun work without knowing how to have fun, and we intend to continue being a place where we push the boundaries whilst having a positive impact. So what does a good company look like in 2021? The B Corp process has taught us that this seemingly simple question is actually extremely complicated, but it has also given us optimism that the answer is varied and growing.

Clearly companies are an essential part of modern society, and perhaps the good ones in the future will be those that employees, community members and customers agree contribute more to it than they take from it.

For us in the agency world, it’s very clear that without strong values and a healthy dose of perspective, it’s going to be hard to build brands fit for the future. So we’re signing ourselves up for having the most positive impact we can. To look at the big picture and push to find ways of working that better serve our people, our partners, and our planet. If you’d like to see what we’re up to you can follow us @wkamsterdam, or if you’d like to learn more you can reach us directly at socialimpact.amsterdam@wk.com.

About B Lab® B Lab is transforming the global economy to benefit all people, communities, and the planet. A leader in economic systems change, our global network creates standards, policies, tools, and programs for business, and we certify companies—known as B Corps—who are leading the way. To date, our community includes 280,000 workers in over 4,000 B Corps across 77 countries and 153 industries, and more than 150,000 companies manage their impact with the B Impact Assessment and the SDG Action Manager. To learn more and join the movement, visit www.bcorporation.eu.

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