Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece called "Social Causes Come Calling". It reminded me (in case the numerous shareholder ballots in my inbox hadn't already) that its annual meeting season again. This is the time of year when Boards, CEOs, IR and Corporate Affairs executives often huddle together to figure out which investor or NGO is going "to attack," on what issue and what the company can do about it. If senior corporate execs ever feel like there is a target on their back, it's often during the AGM prep process. I know... I used to be one of those execs.
Of course, at the best companies (and I was lucky enough to have been employed by two of the best -- Kraft Foods and Unilever), there really aren't any surprises. Most investors and NGOs will reach out and try to negotiate before they take something public. So for many companies, the risks have been dealt with and common ground has been found long before the proxy materials ever get sent. And for sure, that's a step forward. Indeed, for those companies already investing in a "shared value" approach, they've taken it even further. But you still may be missing the bigger opportunity -- one that will not only make AGM prep easier, but can actually drive both your reputation and even more importantly, your business.
If I were leading this process for a public company today, I would say let's take the time and money we're spending on monitoring, scenario planning and even "doing CSR" and add that up. I'm guessing it won't be a small number. Then, instead of waiting to react or spraying money across a wide range of charities and causes, I'd make the case for my company to decide to proactively solve specific social issues. And not just any social issues. We wouldn't be influenced by "pet projects" or even the hottest issues of the day. We'd focus on solving the social issues research proves drive our consumer/customer purchase behavior.
Not possible you say? Well, I probably would've said that too. But in the past couple years by working with some of the world's leading corporate consumer insights teams, we've figured out how to do just that. I won't go into detail here because I don't want this to become too much of a sales pitch. (If you want to read more, you can check out our website at www.missionmeasurement.com). But I did want to flag for all those still stuck in the AGM rut that there is another way. And, if as the WSJ reported, 56 percent of shareholder proposals this year were related to social and environmental issues, you clearly can't avoid this. But instead of taking the traditional compliance and risk mitigation approach, maybe before next year's AGM cycle, you get off the back foot and onto the front. Instead of just "doing good," grow your revenue by having your brands tackle social issues that research can prove drive your consumers and customers purchase behavior.
If you are game, my advice in a nutshell is this: Stop focusing on the AGM. Start focusing on uncovering what the purchase drivers are related to social impact for your consumers and customers. I am willing to bet it will be a much better investment of time and money. And it may even make you welcome the spring again.