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Marketing and Comms
The Agency Behind the Ice Bucket Challenge Gets Even More Focused on Purpose

Purpose-led communications campaigns have skyrocketed, and Porter Novelli has moved in lockstep with this trend — helping clients find, live and tell their purpose. We spoke with CEO Brad MacAfee to hear more about their pivot towards purpose.

It’s no secret that humans — both as consumers and as employees — seek meaning and purpose from the world around us. Few people know better than Sustainable Brands® readers how powerful it is to communicate the sense of purpose that drives our daily efforts. As a result, purpose-led communications campaigns have skyrocketed.

Porter Novelli has moved in lockstep with this trend — helping clients find, live and tell their purpose. It now focuses entirely on purpose communications. In 2017, it acquired Cone Communications, well known for its work in the area of corporate social responsibility and nonprofit marketing, and integrated the teams in a way that clients have welcomed.

We spoke with Porter Novelli CEO Brad MacAfee to hear more about their pivot towards purpose.

Porter Novelli is a global PR agency that has been serving the industry since 1972. As CEO, you’ve recently steered the agency to focus entirely on purpose communications. Why this direction?

Brad MacAfee: More than 45 years ago, Jack Porter and Bill Novelli opened Porter Novelli’s doors, and were fueled by the idea that the art of communication could advance society. In the past three years, we have focused on aligning our business strategy with our heritage and values. 

We see Purpose as more than just a trend, but rather a business imperative — which is why we made the decision to merge with Cone Communications in 2017 and launch the largest dedicated global Purpose practice in 2018. We have also seen a continuous, increased demand for Purpose communications experts from our clients, who are approaching us with new challenges that we wanted to be able to meet with innovative solutions. 

Helping our clients find, live and tell their unique Purpose to drive their bottom line and make a positive impact on society is the proper go-forward strategy for our organization, because it is authentic to who we are. I could not be prouder of all we have accomplished and look forward to what the future has in store for Porter Novelli. 

What did you learn from the Cone acquisition?

BM: Our merger with Cone brought two winning agencies together to broaden our capabilities, and ultimately prepared us for the launch of our Purpose practice in 2018. The acquisition also brought together two rich skillsets: combining Porter Novelli’s longstanding expertise in social marketing, creating some of the world’s most recognized behavior change campaigns, like the landmark TRUTH campaign; with Cone’s leadership work in CSR, social impact and cause marketing — with award-winning efforts like AHA Go Red for Women, Xylem Watermark and Hilton Travel with Purpose

Together, we learned how to blend two iconic agencies with varying expertise into one harmonious communications consultancy. With the unwavering support of our talented and resilient staff in Boston and globally, we now have 100+ subject matter experts working with 140+ clients, including 4-H, the ALS Association, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Interface and Target, among others. 

Finally, we combined intellectual priority research and innovation to drive new ways of bringing research and insight to the market, like our new 2019 Porter Novelli/Cone Purpose Biometrics Study. We took advantage of our diversity and combined resources to come up with five dedicated products designed to help companies further drive Purpose strategies.

Arguably, we are stronger than ever before.

You’ve been in the communications industry for many years. What is your take on the recent fervor about purpose-driven communications? What does it capture that was missing before?

BM: You are correct, in that Purpose has become a bit of a catch-all phrase for meaningful marketing or a re-articulation of a company’s ultimate reason to exist — but it’s so much more than that. 

What was once considered corporate philanthropy, then cause marketing, has now evolved to Purpose. In the last five years, we’ve seen consumers expect companies support and advocate on issues that go well beyond their transactional footprint — including things like travel bans, bathroom bills, and women’s reproductive health issues, among others.

None of those things have gone away — but they have become more interconnected and tied to a bigger platform of Purpose. Consumers and all stakeholders want to understand what drives companies and if that driving force aligns with their values and expertise.

At Porter Novelli, we believe Purpose defines an organization’s authentic role and value in society that allows it to simultaneously grow its business and positively impact the world. It must be deeply embedded within the organization, the brand and the experience that is delivered. 

This doesn’t mean you have to be a B Corporation, but it does mean that your purpose serves as your north star that guides business decisions — whether that includes how to treat your employees, what you invest in for product innovation, your responsible business practices or social impact efforts.

And, there are three driving forces that reinforce corporations driving Purpose today:

Customers and consumers want it:

Employees want to work at a purpose-driven company:

  • We have recently seen several examples of employees pushing companies to align with brand values. And we know today that most Americans consider a company’s Purpose and authentic role in society when making a variety of decisions — from where to work to what to invest in. Companies must remember to communicate Purpose not just to consumers, but all stakeholders, to meet broader expectations and realize the full benefits. 

Good for society is good for business:

  • The famous letters from Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, called for organizations to put Purpose right in the core of their organization to drive business success.
  • Our own 2018 Porter Novelli/Cone Purpose Premium Index showed that those publicly traded companies that were listed highest in the Index delivered annual stock growth of 60 percent better than those companies at the lower portion of the Index.

What are some of the campaigns that you are most proud of and that you feel most authentically capture the purpose of the organization that launched them? Tell us what you love about them.

BM: That’s a difficult question because I’m incredibly proud of all the work we do. On any given day, I hear of something new and exciting we’re doing across our global network to make an impact on society and help our clients find, live and tell their purpose. It’s truly inspiring!  

There is one particular campaign that touched the hearts and minds of many — internally and externally — this year, and that’s the Stop Traffick campaign that our Atlanta team executed in partnership with the non-profit organization Street Grace and BBDO Atlanta. Every year, there are roughly 3,600 kids who are sold for sex in the state of Georgia. In Atlanta, it’s a $290 million a year industry. So, with the eyes of the world set on Atlanta as it prepared to host Super Bowl LIII, we worked with our partners to change the conversation from “traffic” to “traffick.” The goal was to create a campaign that would be impossible to ignore. In January 2019, we arranged for 72 school buses (representative of the 3,600 kids impacted each year) wrapped in anti-trafficking messaging to drive through the heart of Atlanta, creating a mile-long billboard that encouraged citizens to sign a pledge to combat domestic sex trafficking at The campaign has received numerous accolades, including 1 Silver and 3 Bronze Lions awarded at Cannes last month.

We have been doing wonderful work with Dick’s Sporting Goods, helping to launch their inaugural Corporate Responsibility report — The Purpose Playbook. Dick’s decided to create this piece to reinforce the importance of making choices that promote people and planet, strengthen their business, and contribute to a better world. Their mission as an organization is to ensure all kids have an opportunity to play sports, which is what inspired the first-ever Playbook. By sharing their First Corporate Social Responsibility report publicly, Dick’s Sporting Goods invited their stakeholders to be part of the long-term journey.

It has also been a milestone year for one of the most iconic campaigns in our history at Porter Novelli — the fifth anniversary of the ALS Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge. Back in July 2014, our Boston office helped support the viral phenomenon that was the Ice Bucket Challenge. This campaign served as a powerful example of how communications and marketing could unite millions of people across the world to raise money ($200M) and awareness for a valuable cause. In honor of this milestone anniversary, Porter Novelli has engaged our global offices to support the ALS Association’s latest movement, CHALLENGE ME

And, we are excited to be involved again this year in the UN General Assembly, driving awareness of and showcasing One Young World and its Lead2030 initiative, helping more brands and organizations participate and make 2019 the best year of #GivingTuesday on December 3.

What is the business imperative for Purpose-led communications?

BM: Purpose is simply something that consumers are demanding. Individuals are not only asking for companies to live and share their values, but are also willing to do research to make sure that brands are authentically living their purpose. 

Beyond consumer demand, we know purpose is linked to better business results:

  • We know from our 2018 Porter Novelli/Cone Purpose Premium Index research that Purpose drives (13 percent) of a company’s overall reputation, and companies with a strong reputation also have strong Purpose scores. 

  • Our 2019 Porter Novelli/Cone Purpose Biometrics Study also notes that Americans are more likely to have a positive image of (89 percent), trust in (86 percent) and be loyal (83 percent) to brands that lead with Purpose. 

In today’s market, it is imperative that brands understand the power of Purpose and the direct impact it can have on financial results and reputation. When executed properly, Purpose-driven communications can help bolster a company’s performance and build lifelong brand loyalists. 

For Porter Novelli, Purpose is not only our go-forward strategy, but a commitment to our people, clients and partners to drive meaningful work for the agency, the industry and the world.