“Fearless Unlimited: The Making of a Social Impact Agency” – An Interview with Alex Bogusky, Dagny Scott, and Leslie Freeman
Fearless Unlimited is a social impact agency founded by Alex Bogusky, Dagny Scott, and Leslie Freeman in Boulder, Colorado.
How did the three of you come together to form FEARLESS, and what are you looking to do?
Alex Bogusky (AB): My agency (CP+B) bought a company that did consumer research as a way of expanding our capabilities. Dagny came over as part of that deal and we quickly realized she was incredible. Soon she was running our entire insights department. About the same time we got a call from Al Gore to help with moving the conversation on Climate Change. Dagny developed the work debunking the bullshit campaign for “Clean Coal” that the coal industry was running. Fast forward a couple years and we’re all working with AG developing the Climate Reality Campaign. I was doing it pro bono and Dagny and Leslie were then working at a DC PR firm. I was always throwing out schemes for how we could work together more closely but life kept getting in the way.
Dagny Scott (DS): Yeah, we’d been wanting to do something together for a few years but the time hadn’t been right. As a planner in a traditional agency, you can fool yourself spending lots of time in deep thought and social science, but in the end it’s used for some not so high-minded uses. We got a taste of doing work that was more fulfilling on Climate and we wanted more. We wanted to use those powers for good.
AB: Fearless was the brand I used for the work I did with non-profits but honestly it was random and without structure. A lot of people wanted it to grow and be more and Dagny and Leslie were already doing the best strategic work around in DC on policy and social causes. Having worked in traditional advertising they realized that everything is a movement. Including great brands.
Leslie Freeman (LF): With Fearless we’re looking to engage people on their ability to have a positive impact. We are bridging the creativity and energy in consumer marketing with the power of engagement. We think of people as either consumers or citizens, but they’re the same people. We can’t think of them as two different audiences. Their values are leading them in what they buy, what causes they pay attention to, and how they vote.
How is the mindset of the US population changing, and is this changing the market? I’m thinking of Chipotle vs. McDonald’s for example (despite the recent hiccup with Chipotle)
LF: We’re seeing a massive shift. More and more people are seeing brands as being the leaders of change. We want to vote with our dollars when we can afford to. We don’t have time to sleuth so we need to rely on companies to be doing right by us and the planet. We want companies to be responsible and hold them accountable when they’re not.
AB: For years we’ve been talking and following the shift so in some ways it feels like nothing is new but the ubiquity, intensity and commitment has increased in recent years. With more people and the press unwilling to cut a company slack. “That’s just business” is a phrase you hear less and less.
DS: It’s also interesting that you’re example is food. Food has led the curve because we literally consume it, and over the years the breakthroughs in how we think about food sourcing have trained us to think about the provenance of things in general.
AB: No doubt. The more personal the product the more scrutiny.
DS: It’s taken a lot longer to get there on other fronts but now people are more in the mindset of asking where their clothes come from, what chemicals go into making things, and whether that car is a sustainable choice at all.
When a client approaches you, what would you do differently than a CP+B? 🙂
DS: Well, let’s have a moment of appreciation for CP+B because at the time we were there, it was the best training ground in the world to understand how to craft a disruptive strategy and then turn that into world class creative.
AB: Ha. I love hearing that!
DS: The thing that’s different is that the first question on the table for both us and the client is “what’s your vision for moving the world forward?” It’s a different starting point.
AB: At CP+B sometimes you really found yourself tip-toeing to try to lead the client to a more responsible strategy. Walking on eggshells and trying not to offend. At Fearless it’s open and collaborative and every aspect is examined and pulled apart, warts and all. And it’s the same if you’re working on a campaign for reproductive rights or snack food.
LF: Right. Our focus is making movements. We can create a powerful strategy like no one else. We see the opportunity in a way no one has yet seen – and then create the tools to unleash a movement. This takes place in culture, which means social media, in content and out in the real world. We put much less focus on creating traditional ads.
What should executives be concerned about in terms of their marketing message and authenticity?
LF: Authenticity is the thing. We get clients asking us to advise them on how to become mission-driven. We love this because they want to ‘be’ it before they ‘talk’ it.
AB: My mantra for any advertiser has been the same for a long time, “Don’t say it. Prove it.” It works in advertising the same way it works in your own personal life.
Is “greenwashing” still an issue? Or are companies beginning to take their social responsibilities more seriously?
LF: We’re actually seeing the opposite: Companies take their social responsibility very, very seriously, but it’s the consumers who are skeptical. They think big companies are changing the smaller brands they acquire for the worse. But it’s not true in many cases. The tail is wagging the dog and big companies are learning from the small brands on how to engage consumers and earn their trust. We spend a lot of time thinking about this and working on this. It impacts companies at the product brand level but also at the corporate reputation level.
AB: I had a friend and major environmentalist that always said that she loved greenwashing because it always led to the same outcome. Either a company got away with it and was encouraged to go further before they got caught. Or they got called out and had to actually do what they said they would do. I think she might have been right and all that greenwashing just gave way to actual work to become more sustainable.
When will Wal-Mart or GE become a B-Corp? I’m kidding, but isn’t that what we need to change the discussion in this country?
DS: Big change that seems to happen overnight actually happens on the back of a pointillism that’s been forming over time. Suddenly it resolves in a consciousness shift. In other words, this change is already all around us, and it has momentum. Things are happening that we wouldn’t have dreamed. Campbell’s just came out for GMO labeling. Unilever famously has made huge commitments to sustainability and sees it as key to their future success. And Wal-Mart itself of course has made big commitments on renewable energy and waste. They’re not perfect but the fact that they’re on the journey is great.
AB: It’s not such an outrageous notion anymore. I can pretty much guarantee they have each talked about being a B-corp. That would have been laughable just 4 or 5 years ago.
LF: I think we’re seeing these companies held accountable like never before. It’s up to us to demand the changes we seek.
Is there something you are working on, or something I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to discuss?
LF: We’ve talked a lot about companies and brands, but there is a whole other world out there that leans more into the political realm that cares about getting people to vote, to understand and care about the issues, see how they impact their lives. We work with a lot of these organizations that are looking to engage people. People are so turned off from the news, from issues, from politics that they check out. But they need to see that they matter. Everything matters. And it’s personal. Policy cares about you even if you don’t care about it. It impacts how much money you make, the opportunities that are available to you, the freedoms you enjoy – and yes – what companies are able to sell to you. So we see it as all connected and one and the same thing.
AB: I love that as an agency Fearless is equally comfortable working on issues or brands. And that much of the process is the same. It just proves that people want to support something that matters. Sometimes that’s a cause or a candidate but just as often these days it’s a company.
DS: Yeah, I love that, and working on issues, framing them, helping people to understand their relevance is a big part of what we do. We are facing all manner of deep, complex and seemingly intractable problems. Yet the cultural mindset is always evolving. That’s the fertile territory for our work. Progress is always possible.
INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar.