Connecting the dots: How to solve bigger problems with better creativity

Commercial creatives are learning to get to better solutions faster by partnering with mission-led startups.


What happens when you combine a social mission with commercial ambition? It’s a question that’s fascinated me for ages. For me, there’s no inherent conflict between purpose and profit. In fact, given the influence it has on every aspect of our lives, I think business has the potential to be the biggest force for positive change.

But that requires a big change in how we do business. We need to rethink the way we make things and treat people, the way we identify problems and solve them, and the whole purpose of business—not just harnessing resources to enrich a select few, but unleashing creativity to create prosperity for all.

We need to rethink the whole purpose of business—not just harnessing resources to enrich a select few, but unleashing creativity to create prosperity for all.
In the early days of setting up Thoughtful, I noticed a few trends. Peers in marketing and advertising were increasingly frustrated that their creative talents were going to waste inventing problems that don’t exist to sell people stuff they don’t need. Many of them quit the industry, some of them joined the growing ranks of social entrepreneurs tackling real problems with products and services that were better for people and planet. At the same time, most mission-led startups, despite early success and huge potential, simply couldn’t afford the top-quality marketing support they needed to grow.

So Thoughtful WORKShops were born. The idea: bring top marketing talent together with social businesses to learn from and collaborate with each other. The aim: answer that burning question of what happens when you combine social mission and commercial ambition, plus a few others I’d been contemplating—Can marketers make a bigger impact on business? Can they make a better impact on society? Can they change the world… without leaving their day jobs?

Learning by doing good

Far from a typical pro-bono arrangement, where an agency’s time on a project competes with a long list of priorities and a charity gets what it paid for (not much, if anything), Thoughtful WORKShops are set up give everyone real value. A structured curriculum teaches agencies the business, entrepreneurial and social purpose skills clients increasingly seek. Applying those skills to a for-profit-and-purpose startup, the agency team learns by doing, and builds a valuable case study. The social enterprise gets the best minds and hands working on their thorniest business challenge. Win, and win.

The solution wasn't (let's be honest, it rarely is) an ad campaign.
It all started with a small group from adam&eveDDB, one of the most admired ad agencies in the world, and the team behind OLIO, an app that connects neighbours and local businesses to make sure surplus food gets shared instead of binned. OLIO had been struggling to balance supply and demand, and needed to convince more users to open their fridges and cupboards and share food before it went to waste.

After learning some tricks of the management consulting trade, adam&eveDDB came up with hypotheses about what might be causing OLIO’s problem. Applying methods from the world of human-centred design, they tested their assumptions with real people to pinpoint insights that could help them focus on the right solution. Taking an agile-development approach, they came up with dozens of ideas for how to tackle the problem, decided which to focus on, and created a rough prototype. In true lean startup style, they tested the prototype with users to learn what could be improved. All of that in only four days.

The solution wasn’t (let’s be honest, it rarely is) an ad campaign—it was a few clever changes to the app’s onboarding sequence. Less sexy? Maybe. More effective? Absolutely. In the month after launching the update, OLIO saw a 33% increase in the number of users listing surplus food, and 72% more food being added to the app in its most important market. As Paul Billingsley, Managing Director at adam&eveDDB reflected, “It was great having the breathing space to think about things differently.”

With more top marketing talent helping mission-led startups grow, we can transform business into a force for good.
To make sure the Thoughtful WORKShops model really worked, we did it all again with AMV BBDO, Britain’s biggest ad agency, and Birdsong, an ethical fashion label with a “no sweatshop, no photoshop” philosophy. Using the same experiential learning process, the agency team took on the task of increasing the startup’s customer loyalty. Through agile research, design thinking and fast prototyping, they decided to use the brand’s treasure trove of user-generated content to improve the e-commerce experience (all in just four days). The result: Birdsong’s rate of repeat customers doubled.

Connecting the dots to transform business

That’s the kind of fast, meaningful, creative problem solving that happens when you connect the dots between different people, perspectives and ideas. Thoughtful WORKShops’ collaborative approach means agency teams work hand-in-hand with the leadership of their client’s business. Its mini-MBA curriculum teaches them the most effective ways of working from the worlds of business, startup and social purpose. And its format brings together entrepreneurs making a positive impact with marketers’ commercial instincts to transform business into a force for good.

Thoughtful WORKShops can speed up that transformation, but only with your participation. There are thousands of mission-led startups challenging big brands across every industry, and there’s a lot to learn from them. With more top marketing talent helping them grow while learning to solve real business and social challenges in a more effective and credible way, we can make a lasting impact at scale. To get involved, get in touch.


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