Best Practices: Wolff Olins Picks Clients for Maximum Impact

"We don’t think you have to either work for charity or big business, but you can put this idea of positive impact at the center of what you do."

The brand agency Wolff Olins, founded in 1965, pioneered the idea of corporate identities as “strategy made visible.” Today, it might be best known for its controversial work on the 2012 London Olympics or for designing the (RED) campaign, which raised $170 million for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS. But the firm has earned attention from the GOOD Company Project because of its dedication to selecting clients who meet their evolving standards of social impact.

The marketing world is replete with accusations of greenwashing, and it’s easy for a slick agency to make a company appear to be more responsible than it is—and irresponsible companies are the ones most likely to need the help of a good branding team to convince the world. But as social media and the internet give voice to more and more people, it’s harder to pull the wool over the eyes of consumers. Actual authenticity is a more valuable marketing tool than clever presentation, and Wolff Olins is trying to capitalize on just that by finding clients who share their interest in social impact—or are willing to start moving in the right direction.

The company has been successful working for foundations and taking on pro bono projects like (RED) or this collaboration with a social innovator aimed at encouraging entrepreneurship in the Middle East. That same ethos is becoming part of its corporate work. “We don’t think you have to either work for charity or big business, but you can put this idea of positive impact at the center of what you do, that’s how you can achieve commercial success as well,” Wolff Olins CEO Karl Heiselman says. Heiselman, a 10-year veteran of the company—which is a subsidiary advertising giant Omincom—took the top job three years ago.

“We look for a balance of things that we do pro bono, but we do work with someone like Unilever to resync their purpose,” Heiselman says. “If we have a big corporate client, we try to do our best to move them in a positive direction, but of course we that’s not the way we sell ourselves, that’s not the first slide—we want to be taken seriously as a world-class brand consultant.”

Most of Wolff Olins’ client screening happens before the agency offers up its services. The company does research to figure out a potential client’s history and it’s ability to execute a strategy with elements of social impact before pitching them. “It’s tough, because ultimately a lot of the impact we can have is dependent on the clients’ actions,” L.A. Hall, a senior designer in the company’s New York office, says. “We have a healthy tendency to stick to our guns by getting a good understanding of the client’s objectives before we even agree to work with them. We ask ourselves—is this something we will be really proud of?”

If that initial research doesn’t lead to a fruitful process, client-agency relationships can become a little more complicated. “Sometimes, you get excited by a client who is telling you that they want to move in a certain direction, I can think of one right now which I won’t name, [but] we really believed what they were saying,” Heiseleman says. “Sometimes your direct client believes it, too, but they’re in a larger organization with other stakeholders and—you just have to know when to pull out. We have had clients and client relationships where in the beginning we did our best and believe that they were going to make a change, and they didn’t make a change and we gracefully exited the business.”

Wolff Olins, Heiseleman says, isn’t trying to impose its worldview on its clients, but wants them instead to realize that their businesses can be a force for improvement in the world. That’s the brand agency’s own identity—something it hopes will contribute to its own success as companies feel increasing pressure to adopt socially responsible approaches and seek firms like Wolff Olins to help them do that. That culture also has a positive impact on the people inside the agency’s offices. “As a designer, I've always felt it's our opportunity and imperative to put our talents to good use—and not to contribute to more meaningless shit out in the world,” Hall says. “You want your work to resonate with your fellow peers and get the job done in the commercial sense, but you also hope to have some relevant social impact.”

Photo courtesy of Wolff Olins

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