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Five Questions for Simon Mainwaring

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We First author on how brands and agencies can create positive change

Branding consultant author Simon Mainwaring was an agency star, but his work as worldwide creative director for Motorola at Ogilvy and other agencies didn't exactly point to his latest venture -- a book and social branding firm that aim to help create a more equitable world.

Mainwaring's book, We First: How Brands & Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World, lays out a new model for corporations and consumers to do good.

I caught up with Mainwaring to find out more about such concepts as "contributory consumption" and how agencies can help brands re-invent themselves in a troubled world.

Jeff Sweat: Why do you think a book like yours is necessary?

Simon Mainwaring: A book like We First is necessary right now for three reasons.

The first is the fact that we now live in an intimately connected global community. There are many individuals, companies and even countries operating in what I call a "me first" mentality, which is effectively a purely competitive approach to life, treating the planet as if it has infinite resources and pitting one country against another for supremacy.

But, as we discovered on Wall Street, as we see through the internationalization of currency, as we see through the effects around the world of various disasters, we are intimately connected. As such, we need a book that reframes business and the role of companies.

The second is that, as a function of the information provided by the Internet, consumers and business leaders are more aware than ever of the trouble that we are in, whether it's poverty, disease, climate change or environmental degradation. And so there's a greater need than ever to respond to these challenges with fresh thinking.

And third, it's because of the arrival of social technology and its transformative potential. I believe the true power of social media is its ability to scale and accelerate these connections.

JS: In your book you say that there are changes that corporations need to make. What are some of those?

Mainwaring: The challenges for corporations are three-fold, and they affect every tier of the hierarchy within the corporation.

First, the C-level: Executives can no longer hide behind the corporate veil. They need to be accountable for what their companies do, because entities are responsible for socially irresponsible behavior.

Second, companies are challenged to position themselves as places where people want to work. One of the most powerful ways they can do that is to align their social outreach around their core values and make a positive contribution to the marketplace.

And third, in terms of organizational structure, it's enormously challenging for companies that in the past have privately held a monopoly to realign themselves in a way to take advantage of the social business marketplace. Traditionally, companies are structured around a hierarchy. Now various people, including Charlene Li, who wrote a wonderful book called Open Leadership, have examined in detail what this reorganization might look like, whether it's hub-and-spoke, whether it's a dandelion, whether it's some form of distributed organization that does away with the hierarchy but still allows for centralized control.

JS: Why does social media make this change possible?

Mainwaring: Consumers now have a voice. And the fact that consumers can be creators, producers and distributors means they can push back against brands to punish them for their socially irresponsible behavior or reward them for their responsible behavior.

We already see consumer adoption of new technology moving faster than brand and agency adoption. In a sense, consumers are more sophisticated in their use of these tools than brands or agencies. And as consumers become more aware of the power they have, their sway over companies will increase.

JS: You mentioned one concept in the book, "contributory consumption." Tell us a little about that.

Mainwaring: The engine of capitalism, like any engine, needs to be serviced. And the way that we've been running the engine of capitalism has been to think profit for profit's sake and really damn the consequences, even to the point where Wall Street largely came unstuck in 2008.

Contributory consumption at its broadest level is a way of servicing that engine, because brands, companies and institutions cannot survive in societies that fail, in which case we need to make a proportional contribution to the maintenance of the well-being of the entire business ecosystem on which all these companies depend.

And if you look at the reality in the United States, where you have more than 40 million people below the poverty line and 42 million on food stamps, and then you look at poverty around the world, clearly the way we're running the engine of capitalism is not serving us well.

Contributory consumption builds on some amazing work done by other people, including the "(Product)Red" campaign and "1% for the Planet" [and others], all of which give consumers the opportunity to make a proportional contribution to something they care about.

JS: What role do you think the advertising community plays in this new system or this new world?

Mainwaring: The advertising industry is facing several challenges. One is that their traditional intermediary role is being challenged because consumers are talking directly to brands. And a lot of brands are therefore taking their social business units in-house, which robs an agency of its stewardship role.

Even though social technology is powerful, it is not an end in itself. The marketplace is still driven by a timeless currency of emotion. And the way you leverage emotion is in your storytelling, and that's where advertising agencies are completely relevant and essential to the future.

JS: Your book talks about the idea that businesses need to recognize that working for the social good benefits them, too. Do you think that they're capable of recognizing that?

Mainwaring: I think companies are waking up. Any one of us at any given time is a parent, an investor, an employee, a shareholder. And as we're becoming increasingly aware of the global crises that we all face, we're realizing that each of us need to play a more contributory role in what we do.