Could the L2 Innovation Forum be Marketing’s New TED?

Tomorrow, a major social innovation conference kicks off in New York. Is L2 the new TED?n

Tomorrow, a major social innovation conference kicks off in New York. Is L2 the new TED?

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRkyZx1WzWo

Tomorrow, some of the most creative minds in business will gather in New York for the second annual L2 Innovation Forum. (See highlights from last year's in the video, above.) A partnership between branding think-tank L2 and New York University, the conference is being billed as the largest gathering of prestige professionals in North America. The innovation forum will feature never-before-seen research, provocative presentations, product demonstrations, and networking opportunities.

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Two Years into Obama's Presidency, Where Are We?

Well, here we are. It’s two years after perhaps the most historic election in this country’s history, and, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure...

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Facebook’s $100-million Donation: Amazing Generosity or Wasted Opportunity?

Are donations more productive when they're used to finance change-or when they are used to motivate it?


Unless you’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks, you’ve no doubt heard about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to the city of Newark, New Jersey’s school system. To say that the do-gooder water cooler has been abuzz would be an understatement. And I think that’s appropriate. No matter your feelings on Facebook (essential tool? colossal waste of time?), $100 million is a staggering sum of money, one that is surely worth our attention—and our discussion.

Zuckerberg has built an empire worth roughly $25 billion and, for now at least, he appears to be putting some of it to good use. The guy took out his checkbook, wrote down a bunch of zeros, then went and hung out with Oprah on national television. When the story first broke, there was speculation about his motivation. Maybe he was trying to make up for Facebook’s recent privacy-related scandals. Perhaps it was a preemptive strike against The Social Network, which casts him as power-hungry and petulant. As interesting as these theories are, you know who doesn’t give a damn about his motivations? Newark.

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I’ve talked a lot about venture capitalists in this space, and it's no wonder why: They play an incredibly important role in helping entrepreneurs raise money. They take huge risks on nascent ideas in the hopes of transforming them into future-shaping realities (and capturing the returns from doing so). However, with a new tax proposal, the VC industry might be in store for a major shake up.

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In the last few years, doing good and helping others has become fashionable with companies clamoring to get on the do-gooding bandwagon. One of the more interesting efforts is the buy-one, give-one model, a concept most associated with TOMS shoes but which is quickly gaining additional corporate followers. And while it's certainly hard to criticize any of these companies’ efforts, I can’t help but wonder if we might be overcelebrating.

I really dig this pair of TOMS, and if I didn't have perfect eyesight, it wouldn't take much to talk me into any of these gorgeous Warby Parker frames. Not only would buying each of these products get me some snazzy new gear, I’d also be providing one of each to someone in need.

This all sounds great, but upon further examination, I’m honestly not so sure. It seems to me that $160 (the cost of the two items) spent another way could do far more good than some shoes and a pair of specs. For instance, other organizations dedicated to providing glasses to the developing world have managed to drop the cost as low as $19 a pair. The $95 you’d use to buy a pair from Warby Parker could send more than four pairs to the developing world. Which leads me to this question: In supporting brands like TOMS, are we really trying to do good? Or are we just buying stuff that comes with a case of the warm-and-fuzzies?

In talking to some friends about this, many expressed the viewpoint that doing good isn’t the primary motivation for buying from these companies; instead, it’s a bonus. They contend that the people who buy these products wouldn’t be inclined to simply donate the amount, so they need to be given something in return. I’m not sure I agree. The people who support brands like TOMS are, on the whole, the same people who read this site—socially conscious individuals who want to do their part to make the world a better place to live in. Aren’t these precisely the people who would be most likely to donate?

Of course, there are other, more complex layers to this debate. As Carolina Vallejo has asked with her Design for the First World project: Who the heck are we to decide what other people need most? I’m not saying that shoes or glasses aren’t of value to any particular group of people. But are they more valuable than a new school, or clean water, or livestock, or pharmaceuticals? The truth is, I don’t know. And while I think that TOMS's Blake Mycoskie and those like him are doing fantastic things, I worry that someone who buys a pair of TOMS will consider their job done. They’ll feel good about their $50 shoe purchase, knowing they’ve just given a pair to a child in need when a donation of half that amount could have possibly helped that child in substantially more impactful ways.

The questions don’t stop there with buy-one, give-one products, either. Are these products environmentally friendly? Are they biodegradable? What’s the footprint of the manufacturing process? Who makes them and under what conditions? Are we somehow doing harm in one area in order to do good somewhere else? In short: What’s the net-net of my fancy new glasses?

Please don’t get me wrong: I applaud the efforts of these companies in adding a humanitarian component to their business. I, myself, am the proud owner of a pair of TOMS. I’m just saying that as with most things, the buy-one, give-one phenomenon isn’t quite as simple as it seems on the surface.

The logical stance is that doing some good is better than doing nothing. I’m just wondering how much good we’re actually doing. I’m curious, for those of you who have bought any buy-one, give-one products: Was the company’s mission your motivation or simply an added bonus? Did you consider donating to a cause instead of—or in addition to—your purchase? What’s your take on these sorts of organizations? I’m not sure there’s a right answer here, but I think the questions are at least worth asking. It might be the only way to find out if we’re really doing good, or if we’re just trying to make ourselves feel like we are.

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