Kindness can be commercial
A view from Mary Portas

Kindness can be commercial

Can agencies command a high-performance culture and, at the same time, nurture an inclusive and understanding environment? Yes, they can. It just takes a little kindness.

In 2012, I made a fundamental change to how I ran my business. Realising that I had played an exhausting business game for years, focusing on growth and profit over anything else, my team and I rebuilt my agency on the values that matter. Values that I believe will be the foundation for any future business in today’s new world. 

A little context. When I entered the world of work in the 1980s, it was a time of status symbols: big egos, big profits, big shoulder pads. Decent human values such as kindness had no place in the boardroom. For 30 years, the blueprint for running a successful business focused solely on growth. Businesses didn’t give a shit about their people and they certainly didn’t care about the planet. 

Oh, how Anita Roddick would be laughing at us all panicking about climate change now…

Still, I’d done well in that world. I’d made money. My agency was rocking and I carried on carrying on until I couldn’t take any more. 

Leading by example felt like the best place to start, so we restructured our agency away from focusing just on numbers as a mark of success and placed our people and the values we held most dear at the heart of it.

Boy, was that some journey. And one we’re still on. It turns out marrying commerce with human kindness doesn’t happen overnight. But we’ve kept at it, because we know it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also the future success for any business. 

Because the days of rabid consumerism are over; as are the businesses and brands that were set up to feed that beast. People are no longer accepting that "more is better" tenet of capitalism. People are questioning it and people are breaking the system. 

A new order is evolving. And the indicators of how we want to live are everywhere. The backlash against fast fashion. The backlash against the use of plastic. Mistrust in big corporations. The doubling down on food waste. Climate-change marches. Gender equality. Rise of volunteering.

We call this new era the kindness economy. It is an economy built on awareness and sentience. Kindness: a word rarely associated with business, but one that I believe is fundamental to the future success of business.

The traction is happening across the globe. There is an emerging values system built on the stuff we care about, because we have to: people, planet and profit – in that order. 

It’s an area we’ve explored a lot on our podcast, Work Like a Woman. So imagine our delight when my co-host, Portas culture director Emily Bryce-Perkins, and I welcomed Josh Krichefski, EMEA chief executive of MediaCom, as our latest guest.

MediaCom was recently announced as Campaign’s Media Agency of the Decade. I wasn’t surprised to hear this, because Josh is at the helm of a business that’s ready for the kindness economy and truly cares about its people.

One example Josh shared with us was the introduction of mental-health allies. They trained 120 staff to be on hand and visible for when others are seeking help for mental-health issues. These allies are celebrated throughout the business and they are available for any member of staff to talk to, about any problem, big or small, at any time. How brilliant is that?

Sharing values and creating forums and channels for communication around work culture is not only the kind thing to do, it's vital to the overall health of a business. Especially when you work in a fast-paced agency environment like we do. Shout-out to the culture club crew at Portas who do just that. 

Talking to Josh reminded me of how aggressive media agencies used to be traditionally. It’s heartening to hear how far they’ve come but, as ever, there is a shiny pink elephant in the room: we may have evolved as agencies and it’s great we are putting our people first, but client demands ain’t going anywhere. Especially in a world where they’re failing to connect with the people who buy their products. 

Josh recently took part in a debate at the House of Commons to discuss whether "client behaviour is a contributor to putting at risk the mental health of agency personnel". We both agreed that it isn’t. It’s on us as leaders to create kind and nurturing work environments that support our people as best we can, so that when the client pressures get a bit much, our people are properly supported. 

And it’s not about not making money. Kindness can be commercial. If you work for a business that cares about you and treats you with kindness, you will be better-equipped to handle external pressures and work as your best self. 

So let me ask you: do you work for a business that truly cares about you? And what about the brands you buy from – do they share your values? If the answer is no, do something about it. Call it out. We all have a responsibility as humans to look out for one another. To be kind. Remember, every pound you spend is a vote – a vote on how you want to live. 

Kindness is contagious. So spread it. 

Mary Portas is founder and chief creative officer of Portas