An interview with Natalie Richards, Co-Founder of Social & Local, the first UK brand communications agency to be founded as a Community Interest Company.
What challenges have you faced in operating a business with a social purpose?
I’ve discovered a real issue with perception. Often people hear ‘social enterprise’ and a prejudice creeps in that you are well-meaning but perhaps a bit naïve and don’t have a strong business offer. We’ve had to work extra hard to make sure that we are as good, if not better than our competitors but without cutting corners and falling into some of the typical agency bad habits. Although the social aspect of the business is non-negotiable for us, our clients ultimately want fantastic service. Once they get to know us through the quality of our work, they then appreciate how we operate and our social vision as a point of distinction from others, and it feels good to do business with us.
What makes Social & Local different?
Within our industry we are different because we don’t operate in the same way as many other agencies. We don’t put profit before quality, we don’t allow a long working hours culture and we don’t pitch with a senior team and then exploit less experienced colleagues to carry out the work. We spend more time in-house with our clients as we don’t have premises and this keeps our costs low. We also give away 50% of our profits to enhance the opportunities and support the up and coming talent in the industry. For example we partner with Falmouth University to offer a private bursary to students to help develop socially responsible business ideas.
We’re also the first UK brand communications agency to operate as a Community Interest Company, which places us on the spectrum between a business and a charity. This means we have to be completely transparent and share all of our financial information, but we can also make a profit, 50% of which we give away. However most organisations in this bracket, including social enterprises, offer a ‘social’ product, such as up-cycling furniture and training disadvantaged young people, as well as putting their profits towards good causes. We’ve challenged the ‘social business’ brief somewhat as we are a fully mainstream commercial business, working with corporates and charities alike, but still want to use that business framework to a positive end, beyond pure profit.
What advice would you give to those starting out in their careers?
Stay true to your values and be confident. Remember that many clients prefer a partnership that feels more genuine. Don’t abandon what is important to you to focus on money, even when times get tough. Especially when times get tough! It will pay off in the long run and your reputation will hold you in good stead. It’s much easier to get out of bed in the morning when you are motivated by more than just money, and this will unlock opportunities for you.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that clients expect the creative industries, in particular communications agencies, to be in ahead of the game on ethical and social issues, and to advise them on what their customers will want. In the age of social media, customers will give direct and very public feedback if they think a brand is behaving in an unethical way, and you can’t afford to leave your clients open to that. Part of what you are being paid for is to be aware of ethical issues and social impact, so there is definitely a commercial driver to having a social purpose.