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The Road to Hell, part 3 of 3
The final instalment of my three-part case against purpose, including why it matters and a few signposts for a path in the other direction.
This will make more sense to anyone who has read part one, in which I talked about what purpose is and where it came from; and part two, in which I talked about how it leads to bad marketing and worse social outcomes.
In this post, we come to the Simon Sinek question: why. And it’s a fair question to ask given how much time and verbiage I’ve dedicated to this topic.
Why does it matter?
I hope the answer is already becoming clear, particularly in the Cadbury’s case study. But there’s one point I want to emphasise straight away.
In recent years, you would be forgiven for thinking that being anti-purpose is a right-wing position. There has been the ongoing sideshow of Ron DeSantis taking on Disney in Florida. Vivek Ramaswamy, another Republican presidential candidate, wrote a book attacking what he calls ‘woke capitalism’. And in the UK, Conservative minister Kemi Badenoch has attacked Ben & Jerry’s and other so-called woke businesses. All pretty right-wing, all pretty ‘culture wars’.
But the more interesting truth is that criticism of purpose has come from across the political spectrum, from the centre to the far left. In Australia, Carl Rhodes has been a left-wing critic of ‘woke capitalism’. Anand Giridharadas took on Do well by doing good back in 2018. Radical left-wing comedian Adam Conover has raged entertainingly against Patagonia. And commentators from Robert Reich to Alison Taylor have expressed scepticism about the purposeful posturing of big business.
Wherever you are on that spectrum, it’s strange to observe how the political polarities have shifted as the debate has evolved. In my formative years, it was a standard position of the left to be sceptical of corporate involvement in politics and social issues. We didn’t like the idea of big business interfering in the political process, and we were certainly sceptical of claims that business was a force for good. If anything, such claims would bring to mind the twisted logic of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, who claimed that Greed is good, in what was seen as the monstrous culmination of the Milton Friedman ‘shareholder capitalism’ way of thinking.
But there is a sense in which ‘Do well by doing good’ is the natural successor to ‘Greed is good’. I’ve written before about how Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey, co-founders of purpose giant WeWork, bonded over a shared love of Wall Street and went out of their way to acquire the building where it was filmed, so that Neumann could use Gekko’s office as his own. The poetic symmetry reflects a deeper truth.
A real-life Wall Street trader of the 1980s was Larry Fink (see part one), who initially harboured political ambitions, before starting a career in finance. He made his first millions designing the same mortgage-backed securities that led to the 2008 crash. By that point, he was in a position to ride to the rescue as leader of the new corporate purpose movement, openly vowing to fix the societal challenges that politicians were failing to address. Fink rarely seems troubled by the lack of a democratic mandate for any of this activity. In 2017, he memorably claimed “I don’t identify as powerful”. What a 2010s quote that is.
But none of this is personalisable to Fink alone. He’s one face of a wider corporate takeover of the public and social realm, where purpose is the best kind of cover story, because many of its protagonists sincerely believe in it, and all the incentives are aligned for them to keep believing in it. Only occasionally does an alternative voice break through. Tariq Fancy, former Chief Sustainability Officer at BlackRock, has spoken powerfully about how the purpose movement (in the guise of ESG—Environmental, Social and Governance) has not only failed to deliver on its stated goals, but has been an active blocker of progress. He compares it to players taking a vow of good sportsmanship, when what is really needed are better rules and stronger referees. Despite invitations, he has never managed to draw Larry Fink into a constructive debate about this. This doesn’t seem like the behaviour of someone earnestly engaged in working out the best way to deliver social change.
The answer to ‘Why it matters’ should be clear when you look around at this new gilded age of out-of-control billionaires, trillion-dollar monopolies and the corporate-political blob that squats over Davos and most halls of power. When corporations start to claim authority in realms beyond their own, it’s not a sign of a healthily functioning society.
But the genius of the purpose meme is that, the worse things get, the more it uses that as justification for itself. We can’t rely on politicians, charities or communities, Purpose proclaims. We need business to step up! That’s the argument I’d most like people to rethink. It may have been more believable at the start of the purpose movement. But 15 years in, evidence of progress is non-existent.
This is true even in the flagship cases where purpose is widely celebrated. Has Dove sold a lot of soap and won lots of awards since launching the Campaign for Real Beauty in 2004? Yes. Has mental health and body image in young women improved as a result? No—quite the opposite. Has Dove successfully built its brand by highlighting the toxicity of social media? Yes. Does Dove continue to channel millions into those same platforms, because it systemically needs to sell beauty products to new generations? Of course. Has Dove plastered its logo over the faces of Covid nurses in an attempt to borrow some of the warm public sentiment? Yes. Do we all just accept it, because that seems to be how things work now—social messages always have to come with some dumb logo for a weakly connected product attached? Depressingly, the answer seems to be yes. Hopefully, eventually, it will be no.
I haven’t mentioned why I headed this three-part series with an image of El Greco’s painting of Christ driving the traders from the temple—the only time He was reported to have lost His shit. By most readings, Jesus’s issue wasn’t with the idea of trade itself, but with the lack of respect for a discrete realm: go and sell your stuff, but do it somewhere else. It’s this separation of church and state, or of the commercial and civic realms, that is perennially important. It’s not that these realms never interact, but the conceptual boundaries exist for a reason. Purpose is the trader in the temple. Its signature tone is hubris in the Ancient Greek sense of encroaching into another realm. Look closely at the painting and you’ll see one of the products on sale was a dove: some things never change.
What’s the alternative?
In making the anti-purpose argument, I’m aware of sounding like a critic of business in general. But I suspect I’m more of a believer in business than most purpose people, who fundamentally believe business needs to be redeemed by the addition of a higher purpose. I don’t think that’s the case.
The truth is that business can play a decent and vital role in a functioning society. But the people inside those businesses need to cast off the self-serving purpose narrative and take on a different view of the everyday ethical challenges they face.
They can find moral inspiration in an unlikely place: the words of an advertising copywriter.
I consider ‘A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something’ to be the inverse of ‘Do well by doing good’. Bill Bernbach said it in a context that I cover here. As an ethical compass for businesses, it’s a reminder that doing the right thing won’t always be easy, and in most cases will come at a cost. Indeed, the cost is part of what makes it a good thing. This was the key point in my first contribution to this debate back in 2017.
I like to think the article influenced the thinking of Ian Leslie when he gave a talk on purpose later that year. In citing the Bernbach quote, he makes the further point that ‘doing good’ works better for brands when it is perceived to be a cost, not a benefit. Before purpose came along, acts of corporate largesse were a form of ‘costly signalling’ that worked precisely because we saw the cost involved and (subconsciously or otherwise) thought ‘Well, they must be a pretty good brand if they can afford magnanimous acts like that’. The irony of the ‘do well by doing good’ movement is that it overtly flips altruism into self-interest, and turns costly signalling into profit-seeking signalling. As punters, we think ‘Well, maybe it’s not such a great thing if they’re obviously using it to build their brand and sell me stuff’. Or in other words: if you’re doing so well out of it, is it really doing good?
With that preamble, let me suggest three small signposts, and one big one, that might not lead to heaven, but could lead somewhere better than hell.
Humility > hubris
Purely on the marketing dimension, look at every ad you make and see which you’re closer to: humility or hubris. Are you talking proudly about starting a conversation or breaking a taboo or leading a movement? Are you centring yourself more than the charity you’re partnering with? Are you several rungs up that ladder of abstraction from the day-to-day reality of your product?
If so, it’s in your commercial interest to step down a few rungs. Even in the cases where you’re talking about your business doing good things, take a different approach to the story. Underclaim and over-deliver. Spotlight the charity partner more than yourself. Acknowledge you probably only discovered this social issue a couple of strategy meetings ago and you’re not really the ones to lead a conversation on it. It will probably work out better for you. Brands are like people—you warm to the ones who aren’t too obviously full of themselves.
Humour > holier-than-thou
Not every ad has to be laugh-out-loud funny. But as a general rule, humour is a sign of psychological health. It’s connected to humility—a sense of being grounded and self-aware. We all know that marketing isn’t the most distinguished thing for anyone to have to do, but that’s OK. Whatever brand you are, however visionary and disruptive you consider yourself to be, you’re still essentially a door-to-door salesperson, interrupting someone’s day to sell them a vacuum cleaner. But they might benefit from a new vacuum cleaner. And if you sell one, it might mean a supplier goes home happier tonight, and a kid somewhere goes on holiday. So embrace the salesperson role, with creativity and charm. The one person less welcome than a door-to-door salesperson is a Jehovah’s Witness. Don’t be that brand.
Human > corporate
Moving away from marketing into the wider realm of business ethics, remember that people are the true locus of ethical concern, not brands or corporations. Every business is a collection of people who have their own purposes. They have friends, families, communities, creative interests, political preferences, favoured charities and causes dear to their hearts. A business can be a powerful engine to drive all those things, without conscripting everyone into the same, top-down social purpose. There’s something antisocial in the very idea.
If you’re the CEO of a business, respect the humanity of your employees and consumers, because employee and consumer is only one thing they are. None of us are stakeholders in you, however much you invoke us in your board meetings. If anything, we allow you to borrow a small and non-controlling stake in us. So deliver for us, but don’t speak for us. The next time you start a piece of brand copy with ‘We believe’, remember the ‘We’ is just a fictional construct. It’s ok to use it to talk about how we all believe in making tasty pizzas. It’s a problem to use it to say we all believe in the pizza company’s latest political stance.
All these small signposts add up to a single bigger one, aimed mainly at the advertising, design and branding industries.
In a deep sense, creativity is the opposite of purpose.
Purpose is a closed mindset: it decides the goal in advance. We are asked to start with why and head off down that path, preemptively closing off the many potential paths that don’t fit with the goal but might lead somewhere more meaningful.
Creativity is an open mindset: it’s about travelling in order to find out why we made the journey. Creativity gets curious about new directions that somehow feel right. It makes sudden turns that feel counter-intuitive but make sense in retrospect.
One of the disheartening aspects of the last decade has been to see the creative industries—including their leading institutions and awards schemes—hedging, diluting, apologising for, or outright abandoning their belief in creativity. I made that argument in my first Substack post, and just recently I believe there are signs of a gradual, fragile recovery.
But it needs more creative people to speak out in favour of creativity. All these high-flown arguments come into sharp focus when you sit on awards juries and feel the weight of people ignoring their responsibility to judge craft, creativity and ideas because ‘I just feel it’s a really important cause’—and receiving applause for it. As long as purpose is the prevailing mindset, there’s no argument against that person. The only possible pushback is to insist on there being something separable from purpose. Something called creativity. It’s a brilliant, mysterious, multifaceted, inclusive, valuable thing. And it needs no justification separate from itself.
But come on, surely important causes can be part of the mix too! No—they’re too important for that. Social impact deserves to be judged separately and rigorously. There should be distinct ‘for good’ categories where it’s a valid factor in the judging—and you will find those categories will be dominated by not-for-profits who do serious work in this area, rather than consumer brands who briefly embrace some remotely adjacent cause for the good vibes. You will also hopefully find that the jurors are sector experts who know that a warm feeling weakly connected to a washing powder logo isn’t enough.
Awards aren’t the point, but they’re a place where this conversation comes into focus once a year, complete with its back story going back centuries, and its wider corporate-political context, of which few are aware. I’ve semi-deliberately timed this three-part post to coincide with Cannes, where opinion formers form their opinions. If you have any respect for either creativity or true social purpose, it’s time to form some different ones.
Thanks for reading. Please forward and share—it’s getting harder to get any purchase in the current social media environment.
For anyone new here, I’m a writer of poetry, downbeat diaries, branding and advertising projects, articles for Creative Review and The Guardian, books about design, and occasional songs. Thoughts on Writing uses language as a way into wider cultural and political issues.
For a case study in a company that exhibited humility, humour and humanity, read the second half of this post, about the original incarnation of Newman’s Own. I see it as a story of human creativity that achieved remarkable things for a while, precisely because the two founders never made any grand claims to corporate purpose and were intensely aware of the absurdity of doing so.