Purpose ideas, Social Objects: Lolcats or changing the world


Pic (probably my all time fave of Hugh's cartoons) c/o Gapingvoid.com

There's been a great conversation stimulated over the last couple of days by the ever thoughtful Hugh who's being trying to explain the connection between Purpose Ideas and Social Objects and why it needs to be tight. I love the way he's always teasing at the theory to really make sense of it for practitioners.

And, most appropriately, the conversation's been picked up and carried on by John, John and Mark here on Feeding the Puppy.

I just wanted to add a couple of things to the debate:

1. Purpose ideas are what really drive brilliant businesses and make them worthwhile engaging with, either as an employee or customer (as per my comment at Feeding the Puppy).

Of course, you can have a business that measures itself purely in terms of financials and many out there are like this BUT (and it's a big BUT) if you want yours to outperform financial businesses you need to build your business on something beyond money, on something that connects with the world outside, on something that really matters to you (and hopefully your customers). For too long we've thought about the world of business merely as an economic sphere when the important piece has always been the connection of the business with a broader public, "society", say. Purpose-ideas help us reforge that connection and rebalance the equation.

2. That's why (Mark, are you listening?) you can build you PI around almost anything – anything that is, except money

3. That said, John's comments (and of course, Hugh's musings, too) point up that the dangers of just having a social object without it being routed in something you really believe in. What they're criticising is, if you like, social object-as-tactic, rather than social object-as-strategy. As we get used to the social thing, I suspect, we're going to need social objects connected back – rooted, maybe – to something that really matters to the brand or company or whatever. This is why the connection Hugh argues for is so important – it goes beyond mere sociality…

4. We need to mean it, maaaaaaan…

Have been re-reading Clay Shirky's latest and am really taken by his distinction between the (merely) social and the civic: the former being summed up by Lolcats or just generating WoM and buzz for the sake of it; the latter being characterised by actually doing something to improve the world in which its users live using social tools and sociality.

At the moment, too much of "social object" schtick that I come across is Lolcats; not enough rooted in a genuine desire to make things better – with a Purpose Idea.




  1. HolyCow
    August 21, 2010

    Yes Obi-Wan but I am using MonkeyMind to think this one through. I thought I had worked it all out years ago circa the yellow book but it has come back and now I’m not so sure as I can’t find any examples – except perhaps the Body Shop as John mentioned. What I am interested in is the role of business in future and the role of the advertising agency in delivering some value above an advertising idea – ideas that can be advertised is a start obviously.
    Social business? Are we about to redraft Hobbes’ Leviathan? Unlikely.

  2. Mark Earls
    August 21, 2010

    Let’s just start with the business question and return to the role of ad agencies later, maybe
    To your question: there’s lots of examples, Marco.
    From the ones in the Yellow and Pink books to the ones in the Collins and Porras ones.
    Howies (and Timberland who now own them); Jamie O’s enterprises various (Hugh F-W and Heston, too); Dove (until they got a touch greedy); closer to home, Anomaly and (at start, at least) Naked. Apple (vs. Microsoft). etc
    The BBC is when it remembers, too (Reithian purpose anyone); C4’s legally enshrined remit makes it one, too (though you could argue that it has lost focus).
    Collins and Porras cite all kinds of business from Disney to Merck (remember the paired studies at the heart of their first book and so on).
    I’d argue we were at St Lukes, though at times we disagreed what we were for.
    There’s been a huge explosion of interest in US business circles in purpose in business (partly as a response to the craziness which led to the Global Crisis and partly because, well, the wheel has turned since the height of the business-as-a-separate-world mania of the 80s/90s/00s and folk are beginning to realise that there is huge economic value to be had in belief (as Hugh’s cartoon shows)
    A couple of questions then:
    i. what beliefs and commitments lie behind the organisations of business – even if none of the bean counters can remember? Founders’ beliefs and commitments can be dusted down and repolished for today.
    ii. Failing that (as in case of Dove) a management team who’ve inherited the brand can put it to work for some purpose they genuinely support. What difference do you want it to make in the world?

  3. Ian Leslie
    August 22, 2010

    With respect, I just don’t see it. If the most prominent examples of businesses with “purpose ideas” include lovely little businesses that never really went anywhere (St Lukes, Naked) and publicly-funded institutions (BBC) then that ought to alert us to its limitations as a model. It’s certainly a stretch to assert that all “brilliant businesses” have purpose ideas.
    More fundamentally, I think PI’s are nearly always post-rationalised by people like us – planners, consultants etc. They don’t actually exist outside of our Powerpoint decks and blogs. When you talk to the people that actually run these businesses, you nearly always find they’re driven by a confused and shifting mix of financial, personal and (occasionally) wider social/public motivations. Mostly, things just happen; one thing leads to another.

  4. Mark Earls
    August 23, 2010

    Well, sorry you feel so disillusioned with this notion, Ian.
    I’m sure there’s always some post-rationalisation going on (each generation of leadership will tend to reinterpret the organisation’s purpose) and also lots of nonsense written about the subject, particularly on the blogosphere.
    And of course, you’re right to point out that purpose isn’t the only thing that matters – that’d be like suggesting that having excellent financial systems is enough to succeed.
    But that doesn’t counter the evidence for purpose as a significant driver of success in big ugly businesses (not just the “little” and “lovely”, too: the Collins & Porras study (comparing huge businesses in the same sector with similar asset bases over time) is but one strong indicator that using your beliefs about the world to shape your business and help navigate through all the challenges you will inevitably meet generates a tangibly superior performance (than if you measured your success by finance alone). And lots of other evidence in the literature, too.
    Not least because it touches into the human element that business is really built on.
    Of course, you’ve got to do stuff (not just talk about it as we planners are often prone to assume) and that often means a confusing and bewildering journey (precisely where purpose helps make sense)
    And, it’s got to go to the heart of the company if it’s to count (rather than just to the Marketing department which is where most planning insight stops).
    Knowing “what we’re for”, what “we” are trying to do together and why it touches each of us involved in the team so profoundly – why we want to get out of bed in the morning – is a piece of genetic code that helps us self-organise and build a community, inside the gates at least. As Hugh points out, it doesn’t half matter outside either.

  5. Mark Earls
    August 23, 2010

    Dan Pink’s Drive articulates the behavioural economics of why this might be the case at a micro level

  6. hugh macleod
    August 30, 2010

    Hey Mark, GREAT points made in the comments.
    I remember when I was a mere advertising intern tadpole in London (Yellowhammer and BMP both, circa 1989), there was this DREADFUL little boy band currently eating up the tabloid ink, named BROS. Remember them?
    I utterly loathed them. Maybe they were were nice guys in real life, but I could not stand their music or what it seemed to stand for.
    And when I once expressed this verbally at the office, some older copywriter just slammed me down- “The the only reason you don’t like them is because they’re making the big money and you’re not”.
    Well, that was patently untrue. A lot of my favorite musicians back then were millionaires many times over and I was delighted with that.
    But that was my first real taste of just how mercenary the average advertising hack was, and how mercenary they assumed everybody else was, too.
    For all the the Hegarty-style cult of creativity that ruled the London scene back then, I found most creatives I met in London were pretty empty, spiritually. Like I said, mercenary. “Creativity” was just a tool to get the money, the party invites, the coke and the blowjobs.
    I don’t know how true that still is in London… whatever.
    But I do know that those kind of people will have a trouble grasping the P-I concept. A few lines of charlie and a couple of D&AD pencils will only get you so far in this brave new world you’re talking about.

  7. Ian Leslie
    September 2, 2010

    Ha ha – it must have been hard being so enlightened, so young, Hugh – and in a spiritual wilderness!
    Has it occurred to you that the guy who made that remark to you may have been attempting to puncture your pomposity? 🙂
    I had the same attitude to Bros as you did at the time. But I love them now. Progress!