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August 8, 2007
People Have the Power

In the promotional world, this is the age of the letter "P." It’s a time where profit has a purpose, and consumers and employees want to be treated as individual people—persons with a unique set of values, interests and tastes. Together, people and purpose have tremendous power in the marketplace.

Unleashing the digital genie has effectively ended decades of unfulfilling, one-way brand communications. In the era of Web 2.0, we know an individual’s name, occupation and motivational hot buttons that allow us to interact through personalization. Personalization transforms mere transactions into something more like a relationship. Relationships fulfill our need for connection, which in turn fulfills our need for meaning and purpose.

In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink argues that our need for meaning and purpose is growing because the majority of us in the U.S. live in abundance. Having met and surpassed all our primary needs (we have the ability to choose everything from sushi to pre-marinated, Mexi-spiced skirt steak at the grocery store), we have moved up the apex of Maslow’s triangle to self-actualization. Yoga, anyone?

This need for purpose extends to our workplaces. As tribes of individuals brought together for a collective reason—a salary—we must look at employees as people in search of purpose and meaning as well. In the hunt for talent, this will become increasingly important for employers in the “agency” business—competition for talent will be every bit as keen as the hunt for new business.

One important way that businesses attract and retain employees is to give back to the community. In an article in USA Today a few years ago, consultant Beth Miller reported that she increased her struggling company’s employee retention by creating an employee volunteer program with two local nonprofits—Habitat for Humanity and a community-based charity that supports families below the poverty level. Miller said the program improved retention and increased morale by creating a sense of engagement among employees. What she’s talking about is purpose.

At our agency, we incorporated purpose by deciding 15 years ago to give a set portion of our income every year back to the community. Over the years, this policy has helped launch the Anne Frank Human Rights Education Center, funded youth programs at our local YMCA, and preserved precious hiking and mountain bike trails from development. And it adds up. As a small business, we’ve given over 1 million dollars back to the community. This year we identified a cause that has relevance to everyone—the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Working with government agencies and non-profits, we are designing a campaign for our community to raise awareness of global warming and motivate people to make changes. It’s exciting to have such a compelling purpose in our work. It also gives us an edge when I tell prospective employees that having a sense of purpose and giving back is part of our core values.

Participating in something greater than the rush of deadlines and RFPs is good for business as well. Annie Van Bebber, creator of fundraisers.com, points out, “The public is realizing they have great purchasing power. If they're going to buy, why not buy from a business that gives back?” The success of (PRODUCT) RED is just one example of the public’s interest in buying products that meet their need and do good. I believe the same connection between purpose and profit will occur as corporations look to synch up their values with purchasing decisions.

As the singer/poet Patti Smith once sang, “People have the power.” (There’s that "P" letter again.) Because of this power, our industry will have to consider how to fulfill the people’s growing desire for purpose in the marketplace and in the workplace as well.

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Stoddard is the Founder and President of Oliver Russell, a highly successful values-based agency that is above all collaborative, creative and socially responsible. Known for its innovative work in digital/brand/direct and imaginative use of personalization, Oliver Russell has been featured on CNN Headline News and in Communication Arts, PRINT and HOW magazines. To expand the agency's scope and purpose, Stoddard established the "o-pen purse" grant program, and in 10 years' time the agency has contributed over $1 million in cash and services to the causes of human rights, youth, conservation and the arts.


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