Why social responsibility as a strategic objective makes for a better agency.

By Ed Mitzen, founder of Fingerpaint.


It takes lots of fresh ingredients to cook up a successful marketing agency. Talent. Relationships. Courage. A positive culture. Strong, committed leadership. Mentorship. Strategic vision. A willingness to innovate. The ability to stay awake for 48 consecutive hours. And plenty more.

One other ingredient, though, doesn’t often get the attention that we feel it should. It may in fact be just as critical as all the others to an agency’s long-term success, but by its nature can often sink into the background.

Social responsibility.

Many agencies commit resources to philanthropies of various flavors. Some have made truly extraordinary pro bono contributions to their communities, to patients, to society at large. But we believe that it is in every agency’s best interest to go even further than that – to list social responsibility among their organizational strategic priorities, and treat it accordingly.

Why is social responsibility so important?

Because it makes us feel good.

As simple as that. The leaders of Fingerpaint all came from other agencies with varying degrees of commitment to social responsibility. None of those agencies, though, had social responsibility baked into their business model at a fundamental level – they might write a check or do a pro bono project occasionally, but it wasn’t a clear priority of the agency leadership. The idea of taking advantage of an agency’s resources, human and financial, to do good for the community made all of us feel good about coming to work every day, made us feel that our work would be in parallel with our own personal values. So we chose to bake social responsibility right in to Fingerpaint.

In our industry, the good people want to do good, and they want to work for other good people.

An agency is only as good as the people who work for it. And, our industry being what it is, the good people that choose to work for agencies like ours are those who are passionate about doing good for their fellow humans. Talented marketers can make plenty of money in the consumer world selling beer, cars, snack foods, et cetera, without any of the legal/regulatory drama of health care – but some of them choose health care anyway, because their wiring makes them want to be a part of something a bit more meaningful than beer. We believe that people like that want and expect their agency employer and its leadership to have a commitment to social responsibility that is just as strong as theirs. And – added bonus – people like that who don’t already work for Fingerpaint might just notice what we’re doing and think to themselves, “Wow, those folks in Saratoga Springs are really committed to social responsibility.

Maybe I ought to be working for them.” We’ve poached some of our best people that way.

Because clients want to do good.

We know that the pharma industry might not have the best reputation. But at the core of most pharma companies, even the biggest ones, is a desire to do good – to develop and provide treatments that improve the lives of patients. Of course the profit motive is mixed in too – but pharma companies, unlike Budweiser and Frito Lay and General Motors, are committed to developing products that actually save lives, and are willing to burn through billions of dollars and take on immense risk to do so. Pharma companies also have enormous social commitments of their own that come in all shapes and sizes and dwarf nearly anything you might find in the consumer corporate world. So as an extension of the “Good people want to work for other good people” concept, we believe that pharma companies and their leaders want to work with agency partners who share their values. Of course, at the end of the day brand managers choose agency partners, or choose to retain them, based on the quality of their work. But with such fierce competition for accounts, and with talented people behind every pitch from every agency, a shared commitment to social responsibility may just be what pushes Fingerpaint ahead of its competitors in the eyes of client decision makers.

Can we prove that assertion? Well, probably not in court. But what we can say is that clients talk with us about social responsibility all the time. They can see where we stand as an organization, that social responsibility is a critical part of what we do, and so they talk with us about it, ask us about it, tell us what they think of it.

Okay, so social responsibility is important to us, and so we’ve baked it into the business model of Fingerpaint. Easy to say. What does all that mean on the ground?

There’s a member of our staff who does nothing but social responsibility.

That’s right. Her name is Bo Goliber, she comes from a nonprofit background, and she is completely non-billable – her entire focus is on developing and managing the agency’s philanthropic commitments. She communicates with our staff on an ongoing basis to find out what causes are important to them. She researches the communities in which our offices are located to find sustainable, responsible organizations devoted to those causes. She figures out ways that the agency can most effectively assist those organizations. And she makes it happen. That’s her entire job description.

We pursue and maintain philanthropic commitments, large and small, in every community the agency serves.

In Saratoga Springs, we’ve done a major fundraiser for Code Blue, the city’s emergency winter shelter, and helped develop a brand for the organization to raise both awareness and dollars. In Villanova we’ve formed a partnership with Philabundance, which provides 90,000 meals per week to nine counties around Philadelphia and New Jersey, chipping in with both dollars and food as well as advocating for participation by other companies. In Scottsdale we’re working with an organization called Free Arts for Abused Children to help raise its profile. And those are just the largest commitments – we have many others, of dollars, time, and know-how, and are always looking for more. Some of our staff might only want to do small things, like bring extra coats to the office for donation; some might want to volunteer their time; some might want to fund-raise – whichever it might be, we believe it is our responsibility as an agency to help find ways for all of our staffers to support their communities, from each according to her particular proclivity.

We think long-term.

It’s easy to see why most marketing agencies – why most businesses of any kind – aren’t able to commit to social responsibility. In any business, the bottom line always wins out eventually, and activities that don’t contribute to the bottom line just aren’t going to earn plaudits or promotions from superiors. On top of that, in our industry most agency leaders have to answer to a parent company or network of some kind – every quarter, they have to explain to the folks in Paris or London or New York why the agency did or didn’t hit its target numbers. With that sort of constant, day to day pressure, any activities that aren’t contributing to the bottom line right now are de facto suspect.

But we see things differently. First, our agency is independent, and so our leaders don’t have to answer to anyone but themselves. And second, we believe that, over the long term, social responsibility is a strategic investment in the agency’s bottom line. Pro bono fundraising and brand development for Code Blue may not benefit Fingerpaint’s numbers this quarter in any measurable way – but the sense of community it will encourage, the agency culture it’ll help build, the relationships that will grow from it, the people both internally and externally who will talk about it and ask about it, will all eventually accrue to the agency’s bottom line in the form of better staff, better culture, better relationships, better work. That’s why social responsibility is more than just ad hoc for us; it’s a key part of Fingerpaint’s core strategy as an agency.

If all this is sounding a bit self-congratulatory, well, perhaps it is. But that’s not our intent. What we’d really like to see isn’t more folks telling us how socially responsible we are – it’s more agencies making strategic commitments to social responsibility. If our philanthropic activities are giving us a competitive advantage – and we think they are – that’s one competitive advantage that we’d gladly sacrifice in exchange for seeing the greater positive impact other agencies can have in their own communities if they start treating social responsibility as a strategic imperative. And unlike most of an agency’s business activities, social responsibility isn’t really complicated – the impact you can make as an organization is limited only by the degree to which you are willing to commit yourself. We’ve drawn up one road map; there are certainly others. But whatever road you take, we believe that a strategic commitment to social responsibility is something that every agency, every business in fact, should make, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s the smart thing to do.

Try it and see.