Archive for October, 2008

What we still control in these uncertain times

Last night I offered the opening thoughts for a discussion group around sustainability. I took my inspiration from Al Gore, whom I heard speak last week at a political fundraiser in Portland. Gore asked the rhetorical question: This feels like the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, doesn’t it? The audience collectively nodded and murmured yes, yes, it does. It does feel like we’re in the midst of a very dramatic shift right now and are entering unchartered territory. Gore said what we were all thinking.

This helps explains why I’ve been feeling so much uncertainty lately, something I’m sure I share with many millions of others across our country and globe. Endings and beginnings are inevitably messy and halting. And this historic period we’re living through now is bound to be all of that and more. I told my fellow discussion group members that on a walk this weekend, I asked a therapist (my wife) what she would say to a client who’s struggling with uncertainty. She replied, without hesitating, “I would ask them what it is in their life they think they can control.”

Great question. I decided to answer it for myself. The exercise was eye-opening. Even as the economy threatens to collapse and news on climate change grows more ominous by the day, I found within a few minutes of pondering this therapist’s question there was much that remains within my control. Here’s what I jotted down:

my responses

my beliefs

my vision for the future

my stories

my awareness

my actions and behaviors

my intentions

my goals

my hopes

my creativity

my determination

my purchases

I could have kept adding to the list, but the point was made. Yes, we live in a time of great uncertainty and there’s so much outside of our control. More importantly, there’s still so much within our control. This is as true for businesses as it is for individuals. Now is an important moment for those who own, lead or manage businesses to ask what they still control and can accomplish even as customer spending slows and markets and economies contract. It’s easy to move into reaction mode, letting uncontrollable external forces dictate your every action and keep you working in fear of what lies ahead: loss of business income, potential layoffs, maybe even business closure.

Operating from a commitment to sustainability, I believe, provides the anchor in this perfect storm. It keeps our minds, decisions and actions rooted in care for what really matters: the health and welfare of the planet, our employees, customers, communities and other stakeholders. Sustainability is not a line item to be cut when times are tough. It’s a belief in how to conduct business. It’s also a response, vision, awareness, intention, goal, hope and set of actions. All of these things are within our control as businesses. And that’s something we can all hold onto as our world heaves and sighs into a new era.


Marketers’ choice: ‘Lead, follow, or get out of the way’

Consumer spending is falling fast. While that’s bad for the economy, it’s good for the environment. Excessive consumption produces waste and pollution streams that are destroying our planet. The question now is how are we going to respond to the economic crisis at hand. If our elected officials and business leaders seize the moment, the consumption downturn will ignite a movement that saves our economy and our environment for generations to come.

And maybe, just maybe we marketers will heed the call to help lead the way.

In the near term, an environmental benefit will be of little solace to those whose jobs depend on consumer spending, which is to say most of us since consumer spending comprises nearly two-thirds of our economy. It’s all-but certain the current financial crisis will slip into an economic recession, perhaps as rough as any we’ve experienced in decades.

As painful as the near future may become, the glass half-full view reveals the opportunity ahead. Financier George Soros explains:

You see, for the last 25 years the world economy, the motor of the world economy that has been driving it was consumption by the American consumer who has been spending more than he has been saving, all right? Than he’s been producing. So that motor is now switched off. It’s finished…You need a new motor. And we have a big problem. Global warming. It requires big investment. And that could be the motor of the world economy in the years to come.

Over consumption, made possible by easy access to debt, explains much of the financial mess we’re in today. And a consumer economy, stoked by cheap, abundant fossil fuels, is a principle cause of global warming. In the end, reliance on consumer spending is both bad for the economy and bad for the environment. Other than that, it’s great.

What makes the coming elections so critical is the next president and Congress will decide whether we as a nation will fundamentally change the underpinnings of our economy. If we simply find new ways to prop up our consumption-based economy, we will hasten the day of reckoning that climate change requires. If we embrace the environmental and social challenges of climate change as the economic opportunity of our times, we can all look toward the future with hope.

For marketers, the opportunity is to finally begin leading the world in the right direction. If “the motor of the world economy” has been consumption, the fuel has been marketing. Marketers create awareness and demand for goods, services and ideas. The problem is we’ve used our talents overwhelmingly in support of unsustainable economies, employers and clients.

But that can change. Imagine if we were to unleash our creativity and persuasive abilities in service to freeing our economy from dependence on fossil fuels and mindless consumption. I’m convinced the impact would be both enormous and swift for our climate, environment and economy.

I don’t know whether the collective parts of the marketing industry — branding, advertising, PR, direct marketing etc. — are up to the task. The industry is so deeply enmeshed in the profitable, but dead-end ways of consumerism. So be it. The train is leaving with or without us. In the words of Thomas Paine, our choice is simple: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”


Financial crisis tests sustainability commitment

I remember July 2001 well. It was the month someone pressed the dimmer switch on the high tech marketing business I co-owned. For the first six months of the year, our business soared. It was the best financial stretch in our eight years as a firm.

In July, it was as if the previous half year became an instant, distant memory. We’d become a victim of the tech implosion that followed the dotcom bubble burst. Virtually all of our clients slashed their marketing budgets in unison when it became apparent their revenues were falling far short of annual targets.

The summer outlook turned bleak. And then came 9/11. Suddenly any hope for a soft landing for the economy and our firm vanished. The next two and half years became little more than an exercise in survival. But eventually we got through it. And happily, by 2006 we had nearly grown back to our pre-recession peak.

I left my firm and high tech two years ago to work with companies on the sustainability path. Even so, memories of 2001 and after are still fresh. As bad as things became then, this moment is even more worrisome. Are we in for the Big One: the Category 5 hurricane, the 9.0 earthquake?

My rational voice reminds me my worst fears never materialize. They didn’t a half dozen years ago. My insecure voice replies, “Yes, but maybe this time they will.” And so it goes, back and forth.

You may have a method for keeping fears and insecurities at bay. Mine is to move outside myself, to become more aware of the needs of others. I have the good fortune of health, home, family, friends and financial savings. As this recession tightens its grip, more Americans are losing their jobs, homes and nest eggs. And it appears things will get worse before they get better.

A turn of events like this tests our commitments to sustainability. Are sustainability values only to be embraced during economic prosperity? The answer is obvious. There’s no escape clause from sustainable business practices when recessions hit. It’s true we may have less money to invest in environmental initiatives, employee benefits or community programs. But we can still make a difference through our time, ideas and creativity.

I’ve seen enough from the unrestrained capitalism of the last 25 years to conclude this: Humans acting in their own self-interest in free market economies do not produce a massive trickle-down flow of goodwill to those less fortunate. Nor do they automatically protect and preserve our natural resources. If they did, we’d have no need for a sustainability movement.

A recession teaches us the invisible hand of the market isn’t a helping hand. It’s incapable of caring about anyone or anything. A commitment to sustainability asks us to do the caring. Now would be a good time to renew our vows.