On purpose: Revolt’s co-founder on what the p-word really means
We sit down with Alex Lewis, co-founder of purpose consultancy Revolt, to talk about what purpose-led businesses look like in 2023, his adland career, and starting a UK-based business from the French Alps.
Indie consultancy Revolt’s Alex Lewis on the meaning of purpose in 2023 / Credit: Revolt
Brand purpose is such a familiar MacGuffin in the macrodrama of the marketing industry that you can always depend on a steady stream of takes declaring that ‘purpose is over’. Regardless, the wider war over brand purpose has already been won: every major brand at least pays lip service to the idea of purpose, and there’s a healthy ecosystem of agencies and consultants eager to help them do a better job of it.
Not least Revolt, the London-based agency set up by adland veterans Alex Lewis (formerly of BBDO and Ogilvy) and Peter Bardell (McCann, Mother and Droga5) – the two share co-founder credits and no further job titles.
Purpose done properly
When we sit down with Lewis, he summarizes the business’s purpose and mission – “to help clients profitably create positive impact for people and planet”. Surprisingly, though, he tells us that “when we started, we would actually try to actively avoid using the word ‘purpose’”, finding that “it gets you into the sort of slightly unhelpful theoretical debates… we wanted to avoid getting into those debates around the value of purpose, which still go on today”.
Like VHS beating Betamax or Blu-Ray just about beating HD-DVD, though, ‘purpose’ came back around as the terminology of choice. But where is the idea of purpose on that boom-bust tech cycle right now? “I think it’s like digital was 15 to 20 years ago. The technological and demographic changes that drove digital are different but the state of our planet and societies, and changes with investors, governance and demographics all add up to the fact that purpose has become more mainstream.”
That comparison with digital is a constructive one for anyone grappling with real clients in the purpose space: “when we talk to our clients about a purpose transformation journey, digital is a useful analogy. It’s not a panacea. You can’t just make something digital and expect it to be successful in building your brand, just as you can’t just do something ‘purposeful’ and think, ‘well, it must be brilliant!’ It can be done badly, and it can be done well.”
From purpose to impact
As with the digital marketing explosion, the purpose boom has brought a variety of players: bespoke shops like Revolt; dedicated offerings from major players; and M&A action across the board to throw up new configurations. Bigger shops might be more liable to run into conflicts if sibling organizations work with, say, large polluters – but Lewis won’t be drawn on whether network agencies are doomed to have a tougher time with purpose than agile indies. Where others do lag behind, he says, is in measuring impact.
“I don’t think, if you went to one of those units, that they would have any real sense as to whether the work was shifting the needle on the positive impact it seeks to create, and how to measure that. If you think about the rigor that goes into writing, say, an IPA effectiveness paper in terms of commercial efficacy, there’s not that same level of rigor in terms of whether a piece of work has been effective in delivering positive impact. That’s what we spend time talking to our clients about: the theory of change and impact measurement.”
Lewis’s reluctance to criticize Revolt’s larger competitors relates to his purpose pragmatism and business approach: asked whether he could envisage ever selling to a major network, he tells us “if it was a place, or a relationship, or an opportunity, that allowed us to scale the impact of what we do, we'd be open to that.
“We have not shied away from our ambitions to grow the business; we believe that it will be more rewarding for our people, and we’ll deliver a more positive impact for people and the planet by working with bigger clients, more often. But we’d want to go in knowing that that was a genuine potential output, rather than just a quick payday.”
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Doing it on purpose
Lewis himself is an ad industry faithful; he says that he knew he wanted to go into advertising in his early teenage years, before taking the closest thing to an advertising job near his Yorkshire home, in the marketing department at a Co-op bank. After university, he joined the Ogilvy grad scheme and chose a career in strategy after seeing “that’s where I could have the biggest influence on what brands are putting out there.”
Working up the ranks of the network world first at Ogilvy and then at AMV, he ended up as BBDO’s director of strategy – during which time he moved to the French Alps to do the job remotely. BBDO was “a good home for me,” he says; “there wasn’t another agency I wanted to go to or another role I wanted to take”. It was while still living in France that he met co-founder Bardell.
The pair founded Revolt with savings and no founding clients, but a plan to build ‘proofs of concept’ of the work they would do. Within a year, the agency was launching Budweiser’s renewables commitment at Davos, a partnership for which they have won a Cannes Lion. Other major clients have included the likes of Mars.
Going forward, his ambitions are threefold: to expand globally (New York is their next major focus); to expand their work into new sectors “that could use our help” like retail and financial services; and, appropriately enough, “extending the impact of our own work.”
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