A Conversation with John Grant, CEO of Ecoinomy and author of Co-opportunity

Paul Skinner: John, for the benefit of our members, you were one of the original co-founders of the radical ad agency St Luke’s, have for over ten years worked as an independent consultant, and are the author of 5 books, all of which are relevant to what we are doing at Pimp My Cause: “The new marketing manifesto”, “After image”, “The brand innovation manifesto”, “The green marketing manifesto” and, most recently, “Co-opportunity: Join up for a sustainable, prosperous, resilient world”. You have also been one of my biggest influences in marketing – I first came across your books when I was just about to move on from my days in brand development at L’Oreal and I remember thinking that if my bosses had been as smart as you, I’d have stayed. Fortunately I did move on and ended up collaborating with you on a variety of initiatives that have really opened my eyes to new methods of innovation.

So first of all John, what led you to write your recent book “Co-Opportunity”?

John Grant: It was a book about a pattern; a shift from individual solutions to co-operative ones, in the fields of sustainability and behaviour change in particular. In the sustainability campaigning arena it was a shift from “plastic badges and pledges” to social networks for social good; for instance Kiva, Just Giving, Tweet Congress and so on. The pattern itself is a hybrid – the local involvement of a village style community connected into a global network of efficiency; at both scales you see co-operation but it is not as simple as “helping each other” it’s the configuration itself that is helpful, if for instance you want to club together or avoid individual waste. You can see this pattern much more broadly than in marketing and campaigns; for instance in resource use (smart grids and cloud computing); in social production (Creative Commons) and above all in Economics (Microcredit, Crowd funding, Mutualisation, Community Currencies and Collaborative Consumption).

What are the key benefits that you believe accrue to organizations that make this shift and put co-operation at the heart of their strategy?

They become more human on the local scale, and more purposeful at the global scale. Co-operation incidentally is defined in systems theory as when individual agents work for the common good, rather than individual goals. Hence the vision thing is vital to co-operating organisations. As is apparent when for instance you look at the manifestos of the original Co-operative Societies like Rochdale in the 19th centuries. Co-operation also potentially unleashes step changes in innovation and efficiencies. So what’s not to like, really?

It’s interesting that you raise the subject of scale. Many of our member causes look to large, powerful corporates and wish that they had the same marketing muscle – but do you believe the changes that have taken place in marketing and communications over recent years give small organisations with a strong purpose more opportunities than ever before to make a difference disproportionate to their size?

Corporates do undoubtedly have enormous marketing budgets. But these are still relatively tiny in a world where attention is a precious and rare commodity. I for instance chose to totally ignore the royal wedding, despite its overwhelming share of broadcast media – fairly successfully I would add. The mega corporate charities have become like great big threshing machines, driven by direct response numbers and targets, and there is definitely opportunity for new players to become iconic quickly if they can take an early position with any new platform or technology. I’m dancing around your question though because my experience is not necessarily that it is “easier” for small players to have a real impact in that great DIY, entrepreneurial way. Some do but millions of others don’t. There is still luck and brilliance required. And it’s easier to launch a new shoe still if you are Nike.

The lesson I would actually draw from corporates is their founding myths and mentality. Nike was co-founded by the sports coach (Bill Bowerman) who invented jogging. Similar stories are common to most things that go from thousands, to millions, to billions. They have a distinctive point of view on the future of their industry and more importantly the culture and society they contribute to. It’s not easy at that hand to mouth stage (Anita Roddick started with one shop in Brighton, the joke about the name being that it was next door to a funeral parlour! But boy did she have a vision). Few people have that in them, they genuinely “want to start a nice cause” or “run a cool clothing shop”.

So for the world-changers who want to number themselves among those who do really achieve something special, what are the best ways for them to manage smaller charities and social enterprises to make sure they take maximum advantage of the new marketing landscape?

I would advise them to take the Pimp My Cause approach, naturally: ie don’t try to come up with your own new marketing ideas but form relationships with creative marketing people who are up with what’s emerging and are capable of doing it really well. Anyone’s niece from design college can make a website. But it takes a bit of experience and flair to make the next webby award winner. Especially if there is little money, but just a really good cause or story. You’d maybe be surprised
how motivating it is for some people on the other side of the fence to find a good outlet for their talents and pet ideas (in both senses of the word good).

Speaking of which, as always we’ve asked you to choose one of the causes on Pimp My Cause to support with some of your ideation skills. So who have you chosen and why?

I like UPBEAT. I like the fact its working with those affected by mental illness and that it’s about music; two themes close to my heart (as a past voluntary counsellor and having a little music studio). I also liked them being based in Camden, somewhere I lived for many years and I still live close by.

And What ideas would you suggest for them?

We met up and a lot of it was very practical stuff, like helping them with some other contacts in other venues, the music management forum, new social ventures, media production.

I did have some ideas but I’m not sure yet how well they would fit, so just for illustration…

I’d have thought the most obvious thing for them to do is star in their own a TV documentary. What they do (in Hollywood pitch terms) is ‘Pop Idol meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. Only in a good way. They take people who have broken down and help them build themselves back up. I can’t think of anything better to watch; it would beat The Apprentice or various Stage School reality docs hands down. Seriously though could have huge benefits in de-stigmatising mental illness, could raise their profile, attract partners to expand their network UK wide. It would also show the healing power of music and performance rather than its destructive sides (Susan Boyle was a case in point)?

Given the prevalence of mental health issues in the music industry I’d have thought there must be an angle there; a natural way for the music industry and individuals who made their individual name and wealth in it to put something back. If you got some of these names involved all sorts of opportunities would open up; like benefit albums and events. They do have Coldplay as trustees so it’s not exactly virgin territory but they really don’t need a mass marketing campaign when they
could fund themselves through 10 names in the music industry writing out some cheques. First thing to do there would probably be to hold an event where they network with fiends of friends…?

We heard last week how excited the Upbeat crew was to move forwards with your ideas, so that is definitely a space to watch closely.

So finally, I understand you have largely moved on from consultancy to social entrepreneurship yourself – what can you tell us about your new venture?

My social venture is called Ecoinomy. What we do is get employees to club together and save for their favourite community causes: and this is funded out of savings the employees make in energy, waste, travel etc. We achieve this through a simple to use, engaging, social internet platform. We already have a number of larger corporates signed up, including Scottish & Southern Energy. And we have just launched our simplified and affordable version for smaller organisations. And we have picked up our first client for this too (a financial services company with 60 employees spread across three sites). In terms of pumping up our cause (I would hesitate to use the word ‘pimp’ in this particular context!) Deborah Meaden from Dragons’ Den has joined us as an investor and as our chairman.

For more information about John's new venture go to http://www.ecoinomy.com/ or read the press release here.

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