In our latest podcast we chat to Jason Foo, CEO of BBD Perfect Storm, a brand and cultural transformation agency who have put purpose at the heart of the work they do. Foo talks about appetite for social change in the business sector and the scope for social impact.

Listen to the podcast here or read the transcript below:

Do you consider yourself to be a part of any movements?

Fundamentally, the movement we see ourselves part of is to help business in society recognise the role a greater social purpose can play in building companies that grow faster but also have a positive impact on society.

Do you see yourself as one of many? 

I do think there’s a huge tipping point and momentum towards this, if you look at the conversations taking place in the C-suites around the world, purpose has become an acknowledged and important part of any CEO’s agenda. 

Not just because they recognise that it can unlock discretionary effort amongst their staff, but actually the fundamental nature and role of business is changing. Profit is not the only marker of success for any organisation. Their impact and their role in society is as important a marker of how they should be judged.

Take someone like Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, one of the largest fund management companies in the world.  He’s written extensively about his belief that the role of business in society needs to change. We’re talking about a company that has major shareholdings in most of the major organisations around the world. So you’ve got people who own substantial parts of huge international corporations effectively, putting those CEOs on notice. So yes, there’s a groundswell of support, thankfully, for where we’re heading. 

Where do you see the line between businesses that are just woke washing and businesses that truly want to fulfill a greater purpose?

Woke washing is a term that unfortunately does besiege the industry a bit, and quite rightly so. I think you have to start from the right foundations, and that is an authenticity and legitimacy. 

The challenge is when you speak before you’ve acted, and we say to all of our clients, “Walk the talk before you talk it.” Actions before words is critically important for legitimacy, but also it’s just the right thing to do.

Do you feel like there could become a tipping point where brands and businesses feel like they have to pay lip service to ‘doing good’, but then in doing so start a journey towards creating more purpose or social good?

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I think, fundamentally, an authentic organisational purpose has to come from the top down and I think too often the challenge is they happen as splintered branches of an organisation. And whilst there’s probably good intention with it, ultimately I think it creates both a cynicism in society and actually rarely does it lead to root and branch reform of any company.

You’ve done work towards trying to change the narrow depictions of masculinity in adverts. Are there particular causes that brands are well placed to get involved, and times when they shouldn’t stick their oar in

I think the scope is endless though it has to go back to this lens of legitimacy. Brands have to start from where they sit in society and the role they play. 

Take financial services, let’s say an organisation is marketing to an audience that’s entering the third age. They’re thinking about things like retirement. There’s evidence of an important part of society that is currently being patronised in the way that they’re spoken to, that is living a completely different life to a generation ago and there’s an opportunity for brands and organisations to redefine how that segment of society is viewed and how they’re spoken to.

Equally, there are big social changes that can be driven by organisations through the power, impact and influence they have. Brands can create codes and social norms. I do think brands should generally stay out of politics. But fundamentally you have to be prepared to take a position on things and you don’t get any points for sitting in the middle of something. 

Do you see companies and brands also putting effort into measuring their social impact, as well as measuring their sales or reputation?

That’s a good question. Specifically measuring your social impact is not an individual marker I’ve seen.  Though I guess there’s many ways you can measure your social impact. From how sustainable your practices are and your environmental footprint all the way through to actually what is the social impact you have on modern society.

It makes me think about the nationwide study we conducted earlier this year into how society views masculinity. One of the key findings was that 69% of men don’t feel represented by brands. Ads have historically created a narrow ideal which 99% of men don’t and can’t conform to, which obviously contributes to mental health issues… 

…In unearthing that disparity you are also, potentially, making an impactful comment on society?

Absolutely. It’s both a commercial and a social opportunity.

So looking to the future, how big do you dream for brands weighing in on social change?

I think my dream is that it’s not seen as weighing in, but actually the organisations of the future are naturally aware and responsible as to what their social impact is and seek to build high growth businesses that are commercially successful and socially responsible and, essentially, do well by doing good. And that that isn’t a sector of industry, that is industry.