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The agency taking B Corp seriously with chief happiness and sustainability officers

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By Sam Anderson | Editor, The Drum Network

October 4, 2022 | 8 min read

The ‘triple bottom line’ of people, profit and planet is being taken on by more businesses in every sector. We sat down with two leaders from digital agency Kyan, which has restructured its C-suite to reflect that bottom line.

A sheet of unpeeled smiley face stickers

What do a chief happiness officer and a chief sustainability officer do at a medium-sized digital agency? / Nick Fewings via Unsplash

Becoming a B Corp reflects a company’s commitments to a ‘triple bottom line’: a fundamental pledge to organize around a triumvirate of priorities – people, profit and planet. A number of agencies have by now taken the B Corp plunge. When they do, they often describe the process as “rigorous” and “demanding.”

One agency has gone further than most, recasting its leadership structure in the image of the triple bottom line. Surrey-based tech agency Kyan, a certified B Corp, has three founders who, since earlier this year, have each taken a brief that reflects one-third of that bottom line: Piers Palmer is chief happiness officer (that’s people); Laurent Maguire is chief executive officer (profit); and Gavin Shinfield is chief sustainability officer (planet). We know by now what a chief executive officer does – but what about a chief happiness officer and a chief sustainability officer? The Drum met with Shinfield and Palmer to find out.

The chief happiness officer

Chief happiness officer isn’t a brand-new job title – it’s one of the few role names with its own profile in The Guardian, after one of London’s oldest law firms said it might hire one of its own.

You’ll find roles with similar names in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, but not in many mid-size agencies clocking in at around 70 people.

Kyan has a head of people, Katie Buckley, and a chief operations officer, Rebecca Brennan, so it is not a simple reskinning of a top HR or opps job. For Palmer, his job title starts out as a signal: that “as an agency, we take being happy seriously,” with “dedicated bandwidth to driving that side of the business.”

Why? “It’s the right thing to do. When it comes down to it, we spend so much time at work, we should all be enjoying our work.” But also because “a happy team is a successful team,” with benefits that redound to the business in its ability to attract and retain workers, and get good work out of them.

Working in the tech space, Palmer says that a clear and vocal focus on employee happiness is a powerful tool in the arsenal of smaller employers that will struggle to compete with big tech on salary and benefits. What they can offer is “a really positive, supportive culture,” organized around the idea of happiness and tackling the sources of unhappiness they might find elsewhere – lengthy approval processes, inflexible working policies and work demands that prevent people from pursuing their true patterns.

In response, he says, Kyan staff receive “training budgets they can use however they see fit” (one, apparently, used theirs to become a qualified sommelier); and he sees his role as focused on breaking down the strictures of approval and inflexibility – and keeping them broken down (“a big part of my role now is ensuring people know they have that flexibility,” he says). Elsewhere, he’s working on an agency happiness manifesto, and processes to monitor and understand employee happiness – the team is soon to start using FridayPulse, a weekly happiness check-in tool.

Ultimately, says Palmer, the job is about responding to the reality of the modern workforce. “People want more from their work than their contract. They want more than just somewhere to go, spend a few hours and earn a wage. They want to get behind a bit of a mission. There needs to be some sense of purpose. They want to make friends. And they want to have some adventures while they do it.”

The chief sustainability officer

Palmer’s career took him from designer to client services to happiness; chief sustainability officer Shinfield was creative director before taking on his current role. Shinfield’s own transition into the role, he says, is the result of “a natural evolution of interest” and a “luxury of size.”

“We’ve always seen ourselves as being a good company,” he says. “Running in a sustainable way, looking after our employees, being open and honest and transparent with our clients and doing the least harm to the planet. But it was never formalized until now, [when] we feel that we’ve got a bit more time to focus on these things.”

Shinfield led Kyan’s B Cop certification efforts, but says that this “compliance and implementation” phase is just the start of a sustainability head’s remit. Next up is “doubling down” on those external requirements with robust carbon measurement and reporting, and going further by “petitioning for office improvements, improving recycling and green energy, and setting digital carbon best practice by ensuring that our products are the greenest and most efficient.”

The final stage is “innovation and fame: how do we move this on further? For example, we’ve got a program in place to better measure our third-party carbon footprint” by understanding the carbon costs of using particular apps and server systems, for example.

For Shinfield, diversity, equity and inclusion are by no means only the purview of HR, but are properly part of a sustainability head’s ambit too. “The diversity question is part of running a sustainable business,” he says. That means “listening to disparate voices, and ensuring that you’ve got diversity to have different opinions and celebrate them. That includes gender, ethnicity, backgrounds of where people come from and level of education. And socially, giving people a chance from socially-deprived backgrounds, because there’s talent in all areas; if we exclude any of those from our business, we’re not going to be a fully-rounded business. We’re not going to be a sustainable business.”

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