Start with why, end with wire fraud
On Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos, Noble Cause Corruption, why 'starting with why' is a charter for corporate self-delusion, and the importance of saying 'nay'.
Hello again. For anyone new here, I’m a writer of poetry, downbeat diaries, branding and advertising projects, articles for Creative Review and The Guardian, and books about design. Thoughts on Writing uses language as a way into wider cultural and political issues.
NB: you don’t need to read all my previous posts in order to understand this one, but it is pulling together some threads from these three posts on brand purpose (the movement that has dominated the corporate world in the past decade), as well as my last post on toxic positivity.
1. Same shit, different year
So, happy 2022 everyone. You may be aware that I originally described this Substack as an ‘arising of thoughts on copywriting, poetry, advertising, design, language and culture’. I kept the description broad as I wanted to give myself space to write about whatever was on my mind. The thing is, with some exceptions, the thought that keeps arising is… Purpose must die!
I’ve decided to lean into it. As I hope has become clear, I see Purpose as more than just an advertising trend. It’s the place where my day job (writing / branding / advertising) intersects with bigger issues of politics, ethics and culture. Any proper discussion of Purpose gets you deep into questions about the role of business in society, and the relationship of the commercial and civic realms. These are big questions to explore, and it’s more interesting than talking about slogans and logos (although I have thoughts on both).
So here’s my starting point for 2022: I believe that dismantling the meme of Purpose is essential to building a happier and more functional society. But the great challenge is that many well-meaning people see Purpose as the solution (albeit imperfect), rather than the problem. For years, I’ve had this sense of working in an industry where the ethical polarities have been switched or scrambled. Dubious brands and people are elevated as moral heroes, while those who object are labelled naysayers or cynics. At the same time, those who profess to be most interested in businesses doing good in the world are often least interested in how well this Purpose idea is working—the conversation is declared to be over before it’s begun.
In reality, the conversation is alive and well, and some of it is now taking place under oath. This year started with a case in point.
2. Purpose: The movie
You may have followed the Theranos case. If not, you’ll catch up with it eventually as it is being made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence.
The brief story: charismatic young founder Elizabeth Holmes heads a tech start-up that is developing a revolutionary device: a smart blood-testing kit that can diagnose hundreds of medical conditions from a single pin-prick sample of blood.
At its peak, the company is valued at $9 billion and Elizabeth Holmes is fêted as the new Steve Jobs. Investors include Henry Kissinger, the DeVos family and Rupert Murdoch (you’re starting to like her now, aren’t you?)—but it turns out the weirdly secretive company is built on a pyramid of deceptions, wishful thinking, bullying management and outright malpractice, all of which has shocking consequences for patients, some of whom are falsely told they have HIV or cancer, or falsely found to be in the clear.
Earlier this year, the deception caught up with Elizabeth Holmes, who was found guilty on two counts of wire fraud and two counts of attempted wire fraud. She now faces up to 20 years in jail.
3. Bad Apple
Now let’s strain to link this story to Purpose, then use this one bad apple to disparage all the perfectly good purpose-driven companies!
I know that’s what some readers will be thinking. But bear with me, because the linking in this case is being done not by me, but by John Carreyrou, the journalist who has gone deeper into this story than anyone else, and whose book forms the basis of the forthcoming movie. Bear in mind this is not someone invested in adland spats about Purpose—he’s no doubt blissfully unaware of them. But he is someone who has talked to all the actors involved and seen how these ideas play out in real life.
The first chapter in his book is titled A Purposeful Life and it’s clear that he sees Holmes’s obsession with Purpose as being central to the story. In a 2018 appearance on the Preet Bharara podcast, he frames her downfall as an example of what he calls Noble Cause Corruption.
[Elizabeth Holmes] felt strongly that the cause that she was pursuing was a noble one. Therefore all the cheating along the way to get there was perfectly justifiable because the cause was so noble.
It’s a resonant phrase—and in some ways a generous one. For many patients, investors and mistreated employees, there is nothing noble in the story. To them, Holmes is a sociopathic narcissist whose talk of Purpose was always a shallow cover story for the raw pursuit of money and power. But to others, including at least one member of the jury that convicted her, Holmes seems genuinely to believe in the noble cause she espouses.
This will no doubt form the psychodrama at the heart of the movie—what’s really going on inside her head? Does this driving belief that she will one day change the world blind her to the corners she is cutting? If so, is it truly a belief in the cause, or are those dollar signs she is seeing? Or is it a mix of both, with the occasional glimpse of self-awareness at the heart of it all? The evidence against Holmes includes an intriguing note she scribbled to herself as the walls were closing in. In it, she appears to compare herself to Bernie Madoff—the fraudster who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in history, back in the days when fraudsters knew they were fraudsters.
Either way, Noble Cause Corruption is a useful descriptor for a lot of what goes on in Silicon Valley, with its presiding culture of ‘Fake it until you make it’. If you read my post about WeWork (the office leasing company whose purpose was to ‘elevate the world’s consciousness’) you may remember the scene where founder Adam Neumann and his Chief Legal Officer Jennifer Berrent accept $4.4 billion in venture capital from the Saudi-backed SoftBank Group. “We’re taking toxic money,” agonises Neumann. Berrent replies: “I’m Jewish and gay... I’m not accepted in several different ways by the Saudi government—and many other groups of people. Let’s take their money and do something good with it.”
Once you’re convinced of the rightness of your cause, it’s easier—consciously or subconsciously—to justify any means towards that end. And right now a lot of companies—whether cynically, genuinely, or somewhere in between—are convincing themselves of the rightness of their cause. What’s more, they’re being encouraged to do so by people in the advertising and branding industries. For over a decade, the meme we have been selling is Purpose—and its rallying cry has been Start With Why.
4. A strange book
It would be a misreading to say Simon Sinek’s Start With Why gave rise to the Purpose movement, which was already taking shape across the business world post-2008—and Purpose itself is only the latest incarnation of an older debate about stakeholder versus shareholder capitalism. But Sinek’s talk captured the moment, becoming the most viewed TED talk of all time.
I only recently checked out the book, which is the TED talk extended to 200 pages. Presented on the page, minus the charisma of the presentation, it’s a remarkably lightweight document to act as a foundational text. While the message has been embraced by the corporate world, only one of the three examples Sinek chooses is a business—and it happens to be the one that inspired Elizabeth Holmes. One problem with Apple’s ‘The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do’ is that it is believed by a lot of crazy people.
The other two examples involve weirdly reductive readings of history.
First, there are the Wright brothers. Sinek’s version of events is that they won the race to develop the first motor-powered airplane because they were driven by a stronger internal sense of ‘why’. So a fascinating story of incremental engineering innovation is flattened into a simple question of desire. Sinek reminds me of one of those football commentators who declares that the winning team ‘wanted it more’. Meanwhile, he overlooks a key aspect of the Wright brothers’ story, which ought to interest the business community he’s addressing. There’s a reason we’re not all flying on Wright Airlines—historian and Wright brothers biographer sums it up like this:
Most historians treat the Wright Brothers as great American heroes. I see them partly as tragic figures. Once they had the invention, they wanted to be like Henry Ford and Alexander Graham Bell and become rich off their invention and work. They got the patent on their flying machine, and then they didn’t work to further flight. They worked to protect the patent. They became obsessed with making money and protecting the patent.
There is nothing wrong with this desire to monetise their work, but you have to squint hard to see a ‘start with why’ narrative anywhere in the picture.
The final example is Martin Luther King—which, no doubt unfairly, brings to mind David Brent’s admiration of Nelson Mandela. On the face of it, this one stands up better—as Sinek notes, MLK said ‘I have a dream’ not ‘I have a plan’. But if that dream was MLK’s ‘why’, it was one he shared with many who went before him. A more compelling theory is that he succeeded by framing his cause in the values of the audience he was trying to persuade, appealing to Christian ideals, liberal traditions and the American dream. This is a contested area, but reducing his life to an inspirational parable for CEOs seems unserious.
5. The softball question
I don’t believe Start With Why is a good description of the past, because it doesn’t capture the way most businesses start out—most entrepreneurs are brilliant opportunists, spotting gaps in the market and taking advantage. Nor do I believe it’s a helpful prescription for the future, because it’s too generic to be a useful guide. Imagine a line of contestants trooping into Dragon’s Den and saying ‘I don’t have a plan as such, but I do have a strong sense of my why: I want to make life better for everyone, everywhere!’
But my main objection doesn’t require you to agree with any of the above. You may still think that ‘starting with why’ has its place and I’m being nit-picky. But even if you’re right, I want to talk about the pervasive climate this creates in the business world—because I believe the primacy of ‘why’ in the last decade has been a powerful enabler of bad outcomes.
Imagine you’re a journalist or investor quizzing Elizabeth Holmes back when she was in her prime. What would be the harder questions for her to answer? How questions would be tough—how exactly does this device work? When questions would be equally tricky—you’ve been promising this for a while, but when exactly are you doing to deliver? Questions of what, where and who might also demand specifics—what is your current balance sheet, where is your laboratory, who has signed up so far?
But ask Elizabeth Holmes why and she will be in her element. She will talk for hours about changing the world, transforming lives, helping our troops on the battlefield, helping our doctors at home. She might air her anecdote about her uncle who died of skin cancer that might have been diagnosed sooner—the story that she says inspired her to follow this path. (It later transpired this uncle, to whom she wasn’t especially close, died years after she founded her business.) But to whatever extent it’s true or post-rationalised, this is the conversational comfort zone for Holmes. Through a combination of grand vision and personal founding myth, she can hold any audience spellbound.
Same with Adam Neumann at WeWork. Same with any number of tech founders chasing venture capital. And the same far beyond Silicon Valley, where leaders from Larry Fink to Alan Jope are keener on why questions than anything else—because why is the softball question, the one that invites sentiment without specifics, emoting without evidence, aspirations for the future without accountability in the present.
6. Saying nay
The trouble is, pushing back against this tide of Why gets you cast as the cynic carping from the sidelines. Indeed, if you worked for Elizabeth Holmes, it would get you cast from the payroll. Employees who raised concerns were routinely frozen out.
John Carreyrou’s book includes a chapter on TBWA\Chiat\Day, the agency who worked with Theranos—and I’m glad to say the ad people come out of it well. The more senior directors were understandably keen to court this female Steve Jobs who was on all the magazine covers. But the creative team got first-hand insight into the lack of substance behind the claims, at one point drawing up a spreadsheet (pictured above) to factcheck the assertions being made. It’s distressing to read about one of the senior copywriters becoming so concerned about the misleading nature of the material, and so dismayed by the unreasonable demands of the client, that he suffered anxiety attacks and had to withdraw from the project. Within Theranos itself, there was the even worse case of a senior biochemist who died following a suicide attempt, after becoming concerned about his own role in the deception.
At the time, anyone raising questions could easily be cast as a naysayer whose pedantic concerns were preventing them from seeing the bigger picture. If Purpose is the culprit in all this, then Positivity is its accomplice. As I explored in the last post about toxic positivity, the mantle of sunny optimist is often assumed as a pre-emptive move to close down criticism: “Look at me talking about changing society for the better, and all you can do is carp from the sidelines!”
I’m glad the TBWA\Chiat\Day copywriter carped. And I repeat the point from the last post: optimism and pessimism are context-dependent, and the polarities of yes/no, positive/negative are set by those in control of the argument. Fundamentally, I consider myself an optimist on the big questions of human progress, the possibilities of a better society, and even on the role that business can play in the world. But as long as Purpose is the narrative and Why is the question, then my answer must be ‘nay’. It helps that it’s a fun word to say—Nay!
7. What next
All this will no doubt strike some as a tiresome continuation of a binary argument that we need to move beyond. I noted some of this sentiment in a recent Mark Ritson piece on Purpose, which seeks to find a middle ground—use it when it works, avoid it when it doesn’t.
I think he’s too kind about the IPA/Danone research, which was a shoddy episode all round, but I share the general sentiment about wanting to turn down the heat—and I think it’s fine if you view Purpose purely within the frame of marketing. I’ve no doubt there are times when certain brands in certain sectors will do well by playing up their professed Purpose.
But in the larger context of the corporate world, which is where these ideas play out on a grand scale, Purpose isn’t a tap you can turn on and off. Once again, this year has opened with a letter from Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, proclaiming that Purpose remains the only respectable game in town. Interestingly, he is getting more pushback this year. But BlackRock remains responsible for $10 trillion in global assets and dictates the weather in the corporate world. They are, incidentally, a corporate shareholder in Danone, funder of the IPA research that adland has been arguing about for months. It is all circles within circles.
Within this bigger framing, I don’t believe there’s a compromise position that involves the word ‘purpose’. But I do believe there’s a position that takes the good intentions of many purpose advocates, and the good intentions of many ‘naysayers’, and channels them in a better direction. Ultimately, all of this is about how business can contribute to a better world—but the conversation is warped when people assume that Purpose is synonymous with the right side of the argument. Purpose is a confounding meme that confuses businesses and people about the ethical landscape we all have to navigate.
I don’t believe the answer lies in a new business movement—a successor to Purpose with its own three-word slogan. The only way to find the answer is to zoom out from business itself and look at the larger context in which it operates. It involves looking to the civic and political realm and pushing back against the land grab of societal issues by corporate interests.
That may sound lofty and remote, but there is a more tangible target in the meantime. We can at least stop starting with why. Whenever the next charismatic CEO launches into their vision for changing the world, we need to politely interrupt and ask them to fast-forward to the ‘how’. And if they tut and ask us to be more positive, we need to stand our ground and say it firmly: