London creative agency Brothers & Sisters recently announced that it had formally become a non-profit. Founder and chief creative officer Andy Fowler explains why.
“‘Is your kind of profit the kinder kind of profit?’ said the wise old prophet.” That’s a line from the film we made to announce that the agency I founded, Brothers & Sisters, has switched to become the first not-for-profit creative agency. The words spoken by the young actor give a clue to what’s behind our decision.
I believe creative agencies have great power. We are the communication experts. We can change the way people think about things. And the nice thing about being an agency owner, and not being part of a network, is we can make radical decisions.
Just to be very clear: we still believe in capitalism. We still believe in the power of creativity to help our clients sell stuff. We still get the same buzz from a brilliant idea and a brilliant execution. We still get the same buzz when people in the real world share our excitement for the work.
The Grenfell tragedy changed everything for me. I’ve lived around Ladbroke Grove for 25 years. My three kids were born in the area. I’ve bought a home there. I started my agency there.
I was always acutely aware of the extraordinary disparity between rich and poor in the area, like nowhere else I’ve ever been. Grand white stucco fronted mansions rubbing shoulders with post-war council estates where people are living at the other end of the wealth spectrum. The diversity and cultural melting pot of the area is part of what makes it so exciting.
It’s where the white punks and the black reggae boys started listening to each other’s music in the 1970s and the Clash were born. It’s where Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett imagined their genre-bending cartoon band, Gorillaz.
The Grenfell fire exposed the cruelty and the carelessness. Kensington and Chelsea council engaged in something called ‘value engineering’. It’s the practice of trying to get the same result for less money. They managed to save hundreds of thousands of pounds on cladding by swapping a perfectly safe product for one that was much cheaper, and looked the same, but was dangerously flammable. They took the risk of sacrificing human safety to make their end of year numbers look better. I was shaken to my core, like so many others.
My tiny contribution in the days after the tragedy was to take a week off work and help out in a local community center handing out new clothing to guys who had lost everything. Some of them were still wearing the same charred clothes they had worn a week earlier to escape the fire. They had all lost family and friends.
A local community worker called Rupert Taylor decided to start a football team called Grenfell Athletic to support the mental health of some of the young people in the community. To give them some hope and some purpose.
Five years later, it’s become the catalyst to why Brothers & Sisters has become a not-for-profit. Because it has shown us what is possible when we use our spare time, energy, creativity, resources and network and point it in a soulful direction. Not just making a one-off charity film but a more fundamental partnership.
We got 72 celebrities (to represent the 72 who lost their lives) to wear our Nike replica shirt in socials and raised £75,000 in sales. We designed and sold a bespoke Grenfell Athletic Dairy Milk chocolate bar. We led a kit amnesty to give the local community the chance to swap their old football jerseys and own the first 99 Grenfell shirts. We led the team on an emotional tour around Britain to play fire service football teams.
There are a lot of kind people in our industry and some wonderful agencies. But we didn’t think anyone was doing anything particularly radical with the business model regarding purpose and legacy. Being a B-Corp is good but it’s not a fundamental shift in the business model. Creative agencies used to lead the way in ideas that shaped culture. That mantle was taken by the Silicon Valley tech giants long ago. So we decided to start a conversation about the nature of profit.
If we paid ourselves and our team a decent salary, then that was enough. Why not do something more soulful with the 10% profit we aspire to make at the end of the year? We call it a virtuous circle of creativity. We make creative campaigns. They help our clients grow. We get well paid. We recycle profits back into good causes. And that will have a whole number of different effects.
Firstly, it means we can make a fundamental difference to our three good cause partners – Grenfell Athletic FC and two others we are seeking to join forces with (ideas on a postcard please) – with our profit, but also with our time, skill and energy.
Secondly, it will be wonderful motivation for us all every day, knowing that if we make brilliant work, helping our clients to grow, then hopefully we get well paid and we create more funds to channel into our soulful partnerships. What better motivation for a young team, who care about the future of the world more than any previous generation, to know their creativity is being used for genuine good? We hope it will attract better talent. We will still pay them the going rate.
Thirdly, it will stand us apart in a pretty homogenous creative agency market. We don’t want to be another carbon copy. We imagine this decision will bring new conversations and opportunities. It already has and then some. As I like to say, interesting things happen to interesting people.
Corporate social responsibility is no longer a side-line in the world of brands. It has to be a fundamental part of the future. Every brand must walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Twentysomethings won’t let them get away with it.
As for the future of the agency – firstly we’ve never felt such a sense of energy and excitement. We are bouncing out of bed every day ready to move forward. This decision means we will never be able to cash in on the value of the agency. We are denying ourselves the chance to ever sell to a network.
We are writing into our articles to say we must give all future profits to good causes and we can’t sell the agency unless the not-for-profit principle remains. Making the agency effectively worthless. Most importantly, we hope our decision starts a conversation, inspires others, makes people think and is a beacon of positivity.
The world has many problems and we believe in the power of creativity and kindness to make a difference. Who knows where this journey may take us, but we’re sure it will make our grand-children proud. Doing something is surely better than doing nothing. Let’s do this.
Andy Fowler is the founder and chief creative officer of agency Brothers & Sisters.