Behind the Creative: Building and leading a purpose driven business
The pursuit of purpose and meaning has increasingly become intertwined with our professional lives, particularly in the post-COVID era. People want to know that they can make a positive impact at work, even if their role doesn’t necessarily make this impact directly, and in response, more businesses are looking to inject purpose and do good work.
In this edition of Behind the Creative, we speak with Erin Morris, founder of independent agency Young Folks. Erin has built purpose and impact into the very core of Young Folks and she spoke with us about her experience creating and leading a purpose driven business. She also shared some of the tips and tricks she’s picked up along the way to help others add more purpose into their business, so if this is something you’re interested in doing at your company, keep reading!
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background
I’m the Founder and Strategy Director at Young Folks, an independent agency that works exclusively with ethical, sustainable and purpose driven brands that are making a positive impact for people and the planet.
If I cast my mind back, I’ve always been a bit of an advocate for environmental and social justice – I had a bit of an anti-globalisation, vegan, emo kid phase as a teen and thankfully Facebook didn’t exist back then, so there’s limited photo evidence of that!
I studied a Bachelor of Design at uni. I didn’t officially qualify in marketing and I mention this, as I think there’s a lot of pressure on grads to feel like they’ve got all of the qualifications to get a job. But skills are transferrable and to be honest, no one ever asked me for my university transcripts and here I am, working in marketing.
In the early days of my career, I primarily worked in-house and then I got some big agency experience under my belt. I found the experience working in an agency really full on and eye opening – agencies 10 years ago didn’t have an as evolved and progressive culture as they do today. I swore off agencies, pledged client side for life and then sort of accidentally started my own!
How did Young Folks come into being?
I was very hard working and managed to climb up the ranks of marketing in-house very quickly. I found myself at 28, the Head of Marketing, which was fantastic, but a lot of responsibility at the same time. After three years of working there, I moved to a startup which was great, but pretty chaotic as well. I wanted to change again, but didn’t want to be one of those people who had six months working here, eight months over there on their CV (although I don’t know if that matters as much these days), so I thought I would do some consulting work while I figured out what my next move would be.
The consulting work was really successful – the volume picked up, I hired some people to help me and it picked up a bit more, and then I thought I should formalise it. I had some clever mentors who suggested that I could start an agency, which I resisted and pushed back on after my previous experience with agencies.
They wisely pointed out to me that I could do an agency on my own terms. I could decide how it would look and operate, and essentially create something that worked for me and the team I was building. I didn’t want it to be a late night, revolving door, churn and burn culture, but something more sustainable.
So Young Folks was born out of that! As part of my passion for social justice and the environment, we decided to be pretty discerning about who we take on as a client. We vet all of our clients against the UN Sustainable Development Goals to see if they align with our purpose. The goals are pretty broad sweeping – there’s 17 across different areas – so while clients won’t meet every single goal, they all do meet some. The clients we do end up with are pretty amazing and it feels like we get to fight the good fight every day, which is really nice.
Purpose is clearly something that’s at the core of Young Folks – what does purpose at work mean to you and why is it important?
Purpose really guides everything that we do. It helps us use Young Folks as a vehicle to create lasting, positive change. This matters to us and is important as we want our work to be meaningful.
In the marketing/advertising/creative space, so much of our work is a pure capitalism play – we wrap up the most creative ideas that we can think of, into an ad to sell more stuff (most of the time). We get that we can’t really escape the money and capitalism bit, so our thinking is, “how can we work in that system to make positive change with our work?”.
This can happen in a range of different directions, such as making positive change more broadly for the world, environment and community by amplifying the growth and impact of responsible brands. Alternatively, looking inward at how we can wrap our purpose around creating a values aligned company for our team, so they’re not in that stereotypical agency machine that’s just pumping out work without any real consideration for their wellbeing.
I always like to note as well that Young Folks is our name, not because we’re desperately clinging on to our youth, but because our work helps to create a brighter future for everyone, especially the next generation, who will inherit a pretty scary planet. So we want to do our bit to change that direction where we can.
What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced growing a business that is purpose-led and responsible?
Thankfully there have been very few scary challenges, however there have been two noteworthy ones.
As I mentioned earlier, we have a pretty stringent vetting process and we occasionally get push back from brands that don’t pass. Everyone has a different interpretation of what environmental and social responsibility means and the efforts of some organisations don’t necessarily meet the standards. Obviously it’s very personal, and no one wants to be told that their company is bad for the planet, so you have to be careful how to reject them. We’ve had some very angry emails off the back of this in the past, but over time, we have learned ways to communicate that information without hurting anyone’s feelings.
The other part that has been challenging, is in this time of greenwashing and unsubstantiated claims in this ethical, sustainable space, we really want to make sure we’re walking the walk, not just talking the talk.
We put a lot of time, effort and energy into obtaining, maintaining and improving our certifications, like B Corp, Climate Active and 1% for the Planet. It is truly a lot of work and a lot of money as well. As a guide, the Climate Active certification for a year is around $10,000 when you add in the consulting fees to do the greenhouse gas emissions assessment and have that independently audited, pay the certification fees and carbon off-sets. As a small business, that can be a huge chunk of revenue.
What about hiring? How does purpose impact hiring?
Once you start putting the message around purpose and sustainability out there, it attracts the kind of people who value that. I don’t imagine we would be appealing to many people who are looking for something different in their employment – it’s a like attracts like scenario.
We’ve found that we have quite a high volume of people who apply for roles with us. We also have a lot of people reach out to us via email, saying “hey, I really align with your organisation’s values, I would love to be considered if you’re ever hiring in this role”. It also happens to be a very Gen Z and Millennial thing – it’s very appealing to those two generations. They’re at the beginning and middle of their careers and are the ones who will live in a climate impacted world. So I think it makes sense that we’re really invested in meaningful work that makes a positive difference and future proofs our livelihood.
Let’s talk about your EVP – how have you worked purpose into this and how does it influence Young Folks’ workplace culture?
There’s lots I can say about this! For starters, making it really clear to the team and prospective employees about our values, mission and purpose has been really important. It’s a lot like dating, right? You want to put your values out there up front and feel each other out, see if you’re aligned and if it could work.
So we’ve done a lot of work around our values, mission, purpose and policies. We engaged external people and culture experts for support with defining progressive policies and establishing industry vetted salary bands, so we have a degree of pay transparency with our team too. We chatted with the team and everyone wanted their own salary to be private understandably, so we created salary bands. Everyone knows that those who are doing the same job are in the same bracket and earning a similar amount within a range. It also gave the team an idea of what role and financial progression looked like in the company.
We got some advice from some of the people and culture experts and they suggested to skip assessments like the Meyers Briggs as they look at personality and things that are pretty fixed – you can’t change who you are, but you can change how you behave. So we focused on assessments more related to thinking patterns and learning styles, like the DiSC, the LSI by Human Synergistics, and the 4MAT learning styles and ran them with various members of the team. I think the team really value learning more about themselves and their own thinking and learning styles and using these to develop their own toolkit to interact and collaborate with each other.
A couple of other things that are a bit more standard these days include offering a hybrid work environment – two days at home (which are also meeting free days), three in the studio – with flexible start and finish times, and six weeks work from anywhere in the world, which as you can imagine is pretty popular! We also provide each team member with $2000 per annum as their own personal learning and development budget. They are able to co-create their learning and development plan with their manager and suggest how they would like to utilise the budget so it aligns with their L&D and career goals.
Finally, we do things like quarterly wellbeing days, team strategy days and end of financial year and end of year parties as well. These are super important, as impact and purpose can be really full on at times and people can burn out from it. You can get really into the saving the world mindset, so it’s important to be able to get outside of that and let down your hair a little as well.
Young Folks is a certified B Corp – what’s the B Corp certification process like?
It is tough. If anyone says that the B Corp certification process is easy, has either totally nailed it already and they’re the perfect company or they’re not telling you the truth!
It’s incredibly comprehensive and has so many aspects to it. It’s not just about getting one dimension of your business right, it’s looking at the environment, people and culture, the beneficiaries of your work, your suppliers and the impact your business has. In spite of it being tough, we found it really insightful as well. It was a great opportunity to reflect and appreciate all of the good stuff we had already implemented, as well as learn about the opportunities for improvement as well.
It also takes a lot of time. We did our initial B Impact assessment back in 2018, not to go through the full certification process, but to do more like a sense check of where we were at. And while we reached the amount of points to become certified, there were still some things we needed to get sorted before we could actually start the certification process, which can be time consuming.
Any tips to help those looking to get B Corp certified?
My biggest tip, I actually got from a B Impact assessor. There’s functionality in the B Impact Assessment tool to let you make comments, set goals and make a shortlist of stuff you need to tackle before going for certification. You’ll get a really good visual of where you’re at and what you need to do.
My next tip is to aim for progression over perfection. B Corp certification can be a little intimidating as it’s such a high standard of verification. But something that a lot of people who are chasing B Corp certification don’t realise, is that the fact that they’re considering it, usually means they’re further along the journey than they think! There were a lot of things we didn’t realise we had actually done because we didn’t understand the environmental and social governance language and terminology. Once we started picking the brains of a B Corp assessor, it provided a lot more clarity around the things that we didn’t understand.
Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions and attend workshops run by B Corp or even ask other B Corps about how they tackled the process. They have the knowledge, so use it!
Once you’ve submitted your application for certification, you’ll be in an assessment queue for quite a long time, so if you don’t have everything completely organised from a documentation perspective, you’ll probably have the time to get it put together before you get paired up with an assessor.
Young Folks also have a number of other certifications – what made you decide to pursue these too and not just stop at one?
We found that B Corp was a great starting point and a great all encompassing option. But for us, purpose and positive impact is so intersectional, it’s not just about one thing for the environment or one thing for social justice. So I really wanted to make sure we were pursuing a range of certifications that put a really robust framework around assessing our impact.
Particularly being in the marketing and advertising space, which is rife with greenwashing, rainbow washing and purpose washing and unsubstantiated claims, having verified credentials to back up what we were saying was a priority. The first credential we actually got was 1% For The Planet, which was a really great place for us to start as we were able to put a robust framework around our donations and get the team involved too. They voted on who we would donate 1% of our revenue before tax for the planet each year and they found that really valuable.
From there, we did B Corp and Climate Active in tandem and then we joined the Welcome Here Project on the recommendation of a team member. The Welcome Here Project helps us make sure that we are creating and promoting environments that are visibly welcoming and inclusive for the LGBTQIA+ communities that engage with us. It’s a nice initiative to make sure that people know your business is a safe place, especially if you’re in the cis-het community, you don’t realise what it can feel like to go anywhere and be unsure whether you and your sexuality will be welcomed.
Finally, we have our Comms Declare. It’s not a certification per se, it’s more a declaration, like in the name, and we’re declaring that we’ll never work with fossil fuel based companies. Then the next one on our list is our Reconciliation Action Plan,
Greenwashing, rainbow washing – how do companies avoid this?
A big thing is being really aware how easy it is to appear hypocritical. Don’t put that you’re ethical and sustainable on your website and then have companies like Shell as one of your clients or go rainbow for Pride and then support conservative politicians (this one is a massive issue in the UK in particular).
Things like this make businesses appear really inauthentic. Being a purpose driven business is a journey and certifications certainly help, but I think the most important thing is to operate with integrity. If you make a claim, then make sure you can back it up. If you say you’re welcoming to the LGBTQIA+ community, then actually be welcoming.
It can be something really small too. For example, when we redid our paid parental leave policy, we removed all instances of ‘she’ and ‘mother’, just to affirm that not everybody that goes through the experience of birth is going to be identifying as female. We didn’t want to say that we were welcoming to queer communities but all of our policies refer to people in very binary terms.
For those looking to inject more purpose into their business, where do you recommend they start?
A really great place to start is having a conversation with your team, customers or clients to find out what matters to them. From there, you can start crafting your purpose and the associated positive impact of that purpose in a way that makes sense for your brand.
To give an example of this, one of our clients builds modular homes that are carbon neutral and very sustainable in their design. They started off with home energy certifications, but then over time added B Corp and Climate Active certifications to their repertoire. It’s not going to happen all at once, these things take time, especially as you grow and develop your business and learn what is important to your clients and community.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to other brands or people who work in companies on purpose who are further along the journey. Most people who are in the purpose driven space are pretty motivated to change the world for the better, so they’re more than happy to share insights and give advice as well.
To chat with Erin about purpose, B Corp certification or the latest on what Young Folks is up to, connect with her on LinkedIn.