'Don’t look at purpose as a sales opportunity': Independent Insights featuring Oliver Russell’s Russ Stoddard

President and founder of Oliver Russell, Russ Stoddard, brought over 30 years of work in social good to a purpose-driven agency. / Oliver Russell

Welcome to Independent Insights, a regular series that features interviews with independent agency leaders across the country. This week we’re featuring a Q&A with Russ Stoddard, president and founder of Idaho-based Oliver Russell.

Oliver Russell was launched in 1991 by Russ Stoddard, a social entrepreneur who started four companies and launched five non-profit companies. The Idaho agency is a Certified B Corporation and Public Benefit Corporation, meaning it has a legal right and responsibility to pursue social and environmental outcomes alongside financial profit.

Just because it’s an agency that does good doesn’t mean it can't create good work. Under Stoddard’s leadership, the shop has created award-winning work for Fortune 500 brands as well as private foundations and social enterprise start-ups. Brands like HP,Whole Foods Market's Allegra Coffee brand and Mountain Health CO-OP have trusted the team's expertise.

Aside from leading the small team in Boise, Stoddard has also written a book, and often shares his thoughts on the intersection of marketing and social responsibility.

The Drum asked Stoddard on the crush major brands have on purpose, if Oliver Russell does resolutions, the rarity of B corporations on Madison Avenue, and what advice he’d give to entrepreneurial-minded professionals.

Does Oliver Russell do resolutions? If so, what are they?

Oliver Russell is an agency of resolve, so we don’t really do resolutions. Our mission is to improve the lives of all we touch through meaningful work and the power of social enterprise. When you operate as a purposeful, values-based company, resolve takes the form of evolving year-round to increase your social and environmental impact.

Discussing purpose via advertising is uncharted territory for many brands, territory they’re trying to tackle recently (with mixed results). What advice would you give them and the agencies that cater to them?

Don’t look at purpose as a sales opportunity. And don’t look at it as a concept for an ad. It has to be driven from the C-suite and honestly integrated into the operational fabric of a company, led by employee engagement and then through external communications. The goal of a purpose-driven company isn’t to tell a story, but to be the story. When you do this effectively, others will tell your story for you.

B Corporations are very rare in the ad industry. What has been the upside to launching yours?

It’s given us a measurement platform to help us become the best company we can be in terms of using our profession to create social and environmental impact. It’s made work more meaningful for the people employed here. And it’s a strong credential for new business with social enterprise clients—it demonstrates that we understand their objectives and that we walk the walk, unlike some agencies who “goodwash” in order to win a client.

What do you look for when hiring talent? Easy to believe that the triple bottom line is a factor here.

We look for strategic and creative excellence, a strong work ethic and an absence of drama. We also require a proven commitment to social and environmental causes. In all honesty, it can be hard to find all of these in a candidate. Sometimes, there’s an attraction to the idea of triple bottom line, but no history of active involvement. In that case, we try to engage them with a triple bottom line orientation once they begin work and help them learn about and progress them along the continuum as part of their professional development.

There's an expectation that devoting your career (or an agency) to purpose and social responsibility can be draining, especially in this volatile society. How do you keep your employees sane?

I actually don’t think it’s draining, but it is reinvigorating. That doesn’t mean that work isn’t tough, but being purpose-driven brings some valuable aspects to our employees: We value work-life balance and don’t work crazy hours. We offer paid parental leave and unlimited sick time. Each month, we volunteer as a team in the community, which is fun and rewarding. Our clients are bright, talented, and accomplished social entrepreneurs. They are changing the world through products, services, and business models that benefit humanity and solve some of the world’s trickiest problems. Building brands for social enterprises is hugely motivating for me and for our whole team.

This industry is driven by making profits and financial bottom lines, making Oliver Russell is an enigma. What advice would you give to any aspiring advertising professionals looking to make their mark in the same way?

Take control and start your own purpose-driven business. And if that’s not your deal, invest your talent in a company that has a strong sense of purpose. They’re out there, and you’ll generally find that there aren’t huge tradeoffs—unless you find that gaining new meaning from your work while earning a respectable paycheck somehow tips the scales out of balance! Here are a couple of resources that can help you find finding meaningful work: B Work and ReWork.

Indie Influence is supported by Choozle, an independent digital advertising platform.

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