Above: screenshot from Brothers & Sisters' website
“Language can be a loaded thing,” says founder and chief creative officer of Brothers & Sisters Andy Fowler. Last week, the company declared itself the “first not-for-profit creative agency.” That’s a bold use of language, but the words are carefully chosen.
In UK legal language, Brothers & Sisters is actually becoming a social enterprise. This means the company still operates on a commercial basis, but will donate all profits to good causes.
Technically, a not-for-profit organisation is not a commercial entity, but the term felt helpful nevertheless. “The reason we use both terms is we just didn't think most people in the UK would know what a social enterprise was,” says Andy. ‘Not-for-profit’ explains the concept more clearly to the layperson.
“We also like the phrase not-for-profit because, as per the launch film that we made, the thing that we're trying to start a conversation about is about the idea of profit.”
Titled ‘Prophet’, the film announcing the agency’s change focuses on the idea that the word “profit” can be considered from multiple perspectives beyond just the monetary. It focuses on a woman considering this idea while walking in nature. Using a continuous shot, the film provides a chance to reflect on the notion peacefully. It was directed by Rafael Damy and created in partnership with UK production company Birth, which donated its time for free to the project.
Although it may sound like a radical shift for the industry - and Brothers & Sisters’ website describes as “hacking capitalism as a force for good” - Andy puts things into some reasoned perspective. “We're not not trying to bring down the entire system. That'd be ridiculous,” he says. “We are an advertising agency after all. It's the most commercially voracious industry. But our little contribution is to try and think about that 10% that's left over at the end of the year, if you have a good year, and what you do with that.”
Those profits will go towards three ‘soulful projects,’ as Andy and the agency call them. One will be Grenfell Athletic Football Club – a community organisation that Andy and Brothers & Sisters have been involved with for three years. In fact, the agency founder’s involvement in the club was a major factor that inspired this change of corporate structure.
“I think the Grenfell tragedy was probably the biggest catalyst for this decision,” says Andy. Having lived around the Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill area of London for close to 25 years, Andy’s connection to the community that was hit by the 2017 tower block fire is deep. Brothers & Sisters even opened on Portobello Road before moving to Soho. “I'd always been aware of the massive disparity between rich and poor in that area,” says Andy. “It is like nowhere else in London, like nowhere else in the world really in such a tiny geographical area. I'd always wanted to put something back into the area. And after the tragedy, I met a young man called Rupert [Taylor], who's an amazing, inspirational local community leader. Five weeks after the tragedy, he decided to start this community football team, just to give some sort of hope and positivity out of a situation that's unimaginably horrendous and so avoidable.”
Soon Andy got the agency involved in Grenfell Athletic. “I started to increasingly think about Brothers & Sisters, our creativity, our time, our network. We have all these amazing resources as an advertising agency. I thought we can do so much more here than the usual thing an ad agency does, which is make a charity film once a year – that's often what relationships with charities mean.” The agency saw an opportunity to get more fundamentally involved, to the extent that Andy is now on the board, helping to run the club.
It makes sense for the first of the agency’s three soulful partnerships to be with Grenfell Athletic, and the remaining two partners will be carefully selected. They’ll be organisations that Brothers & Sisters can support with the agency’s profits, as well as through deep engagement in a community. “We're looking to find and develop relationships with a couple of other grassroots, local, soulful charities that we can help in a similar way, not just by making an ad, but by really using our creativity, our time, our network to really fundamentally partner with them on a long term basis,” says Andy.
He notes that the agency is particularly keen to find a refugee charity, timely since the Russian invasion of Ukraine has displaced so many people. But the agency wants to choose carefully. “It needs to be something very specific and local that we can be very hands on with,” he says.
This is the kind of business innovation that Andy notes is in the DNA of what organisations like Brothers & Sisters used to be. “Creative agencies used to be the ones in business who set the trends and led the way.” He reflects on the '90s, when he first started out in industry, when ad agencies were defining business culture. That baton seems to have passed to the tech brands. But Andy remembers that London ad agency St Luke’s pioneered the idea of hot-desking. “I remember going into their building and it was a revolution at the time. Everyone arrived every morning, took a laptop and a phone off the wall and you sat anywhere in the building. Agencies used to be really at the cutting edge of this kind of stuff. I think ad agencies should be places that show leadership and growth.”
Doing away with the profit mechanism doesn’t mean the agency staff will all be wearing sackcloth from now on though. “We're still going to pay ourselves properly,” says Andy. “We still need to attract the best talent. I've got three kids, and it's expensive! We're still planning on paying ourselves what we should be paid. And we're still going to operate as an ad agency exactly the same. We're still going to be motivated by the creative work. That's the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning – trying to make great work. You have to be in love with the creative work to work in an ad agency.”
One fact of this change is that the 16-year-old business's corporate charter will state that company shares cannot be sold unless there is a legal guarantee that its not-for-profit status is kept. “We're taking away that ability, as an independent agency, to sell to a network and make a shit ton of cash,” says Andy. “Which is something we've thought about in the past and been close to but decided now that's not the motivation.”
The agency leader doesn’t worry about the removal of a profit motive from his business.
“In many ways, I actually think our motivation will be greater,” he says, adding that Brothers & Sisters’ clients, which include We Buy Any Car, Center Parcs and Yakult Europe, have been “amazingly supportive.”
In this age of purpose, it seems like a good time in business history for this innovation, as Andy identifies. “In big corporations, corporate social responsibility is no longer just a sideline; it's an absolute core. It has to be.
“I think for clients it's inspiring to work with an agency, in the times we live in, that has that philosophy. We'll be even more motivated, as we've said to our clients, because the more we help them grow, the more we do our job and help to sell stuff, hopefully the better we’ll be paid and therefore the more money we can put back in. And when you can see the difference your cash can make to something, that's where the motivation is.”