Can Purpose Save The Advertising Agency Business?

Aug 13, 2018



Originally published by Forbes, Russ dives into the relationship between purpose and business for ad agencies in this new age of corporate social responsibility. 

It's widely said that the traditional advertising industry is on the decline. Last year, according to an article published in The Atlantic, ad agency jobs declined by 5,000, while firms that focus more on strategy, design or video haven’t grown since 2013.

The Wall Street Journal has reported on the declining tenure of CMOs. Forbes has written elsewhere about this trend, citing books like Madison Avenue Manslaughter that attribute the industry's fall to the fact that large agencies rely on outdated business models. These models prioritize hourly rates and media sales mark-ups while "juniorizing" the industry as senior professionals move in-house for higher salaries.

Funny, because that’s not my experience at the agency I started back in 1991. From my vantage point, creative firms that serve a higher purpose are doing better than ever. Whether it’s our firm or fellow Certified B Corporations like the Black Sheep Agency in Houston and Public Inc. in Toronto, in my mind, there’s never been a better time to build purpose-driven brands.

While it can be tempting to blame the industry’s decline on technology and decry the commodification of traditional advertising services, that’s short-sighted. Sometimes entire industries die for a good reason. (My guess is that no one out there is still mourning the loss of VCRs.)


Our industry has long been complicit in promoting rampant consumption regardless of the consequences. To revive advertising – and to be an industry worth reviving – we need to get back to why we exist in the first place. It’s more than the problem we exist to solve; it’s about the fundamental social good that we aim to do in the world. Instead of simply trying to sell stuff, we need to refocus on helping build companies and brands that are worth something and helping design and promote products that create public benefit.

My purpose, for example, is to serve others and improve the world through social impact. My agency pivoted first in 2011 – heck, it was more like we stopped driving and taught ourselves how to fly a plane – by becoming a Certified B Corporation, and again in 2015 when we become our state’s first public benefit corporation.

Yes, survival in this ever-changing advertising industry informed our decision to build a different kind of agency, but more than anything, our decision to become a different kind of agency was about living our values fully and attracting more like-minded people with whom we wanted to work. While there’s always room for improvement, overall, I’d say it’s working.


Living your values looks like implementing creative benefits that reflect your shared humanity (think paid parental leave for all and 100% employer-paid health, vision and dental insurance). Also, try to volunteer each month as a team, regardless of how busy you are, because it reminds your team that you all serve a higher purpose than getting paid for client deliverables. Living your values also adds buzz as a great place to work. For example, beyond awards like Best in the World, our commitment to a purposeful culture has meant that employees come to us and choose to stay with us.

So, is social purpose the salve the ad world needs to thrive in an increasingly commoditized and complicated economy? I believe so. Trust in traditional institutions – from the media to Congress – is at historic lows. Consumers are increasingly inclined to make purchasing decisions that support their values. And workers are investing their talent with employers who intentionally integrate social purpose into their core business. As brands heed the call from leaders like BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, who in January called for all companies with assets under management to positively impact society, the pivot to purpose will go beyond being a “nice to have” and become a “must have” to succeed.

More companies must prioritize brand activism and employee engagement and pursue authentic, meaningful values rather than corporate robo-speak. Purpose-driven agencies that can shape and communicate this transformation effectively – from a position of demonstrated credibility within their own business actions – will remain strong, even in the face of a “dying” industry.