On March 14th, Ogilvy Singapore hosted the inaugural DO Debate of 2012. Our esteemed panel of prominent speakers, authors, entrepreneurs and business leaders engaged the audience in a thought-provoking and somewhat unexpected dialogue on the topic “The Power of Purpose: How values can create value”.

See what Chandran Nair, CEO of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, Frederik Härén, celebrated author & entrepreneur, Olivier Carnohan, CEO of SingTel’s InnoVentures, and So-Young Kang, Founder and CEO of Awaken Group, have to say…

Patrick:
Welcome to this evening’s Do Debates. The debate tonight is a part of a series conducted across Asia on ‘Creativity as a Catalyst for Business Growth’. And for this session the panel will focus on The Power of Purpose. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the panel.
Let’s go straight into the questions then.

Audience Question:
Could the panel please tell us their understanding of the meaning behind the idea of purpose, and why they think a business should have one?

So-Young:
You can think about purpose kind of, existentially right? What is purpose? What is the meaning of life, and so I think when you think about it from that perspective, what is the reason that you live, what is the reason you get up everyday. So then if you apply that to the business context , why is your particular business and your set of products and services or whatever value you are offering, what is the reason for that. I think it’s critical to actually differentiate what it is that you’re doing, because lots of people can sell widgets, but what will differentiate what you are doing, is your purpose and the reason why you get up everyday to do those things.

Chandran:
I think it’s quite difficult to have this conversation, especially in this part of the world, though I appreciate that those of us that live in Singapore and Hong Kong kind of live in Disney land and think it’s the real world. So please be aware, this is not the real world. Be aware that there is a much bigger issue in the world today, which is essentially the crisis of capitalism, and the foundation of capitalism is essentially, in my view, the intellectual dishonesty that has pervaded business, and I won’t go into the details now but just leave it at that. So we have the misuse of very important words like purpose, values etc. So there is an intellectual dishonesty that has pervaded business. I go to a lot of business forums and I’m aghast at the intellectual dishonesty. So if you look at purpose, and then I’ll shut up, but just to throw this out. You could, as you say, have the literal translation of you have an intention to do something and hopefully that has some implications that you understand. But at a higher level presumably purpose suggests that you have a higher meaning of doing something, which sort of touches on this issue of intellectual honesty, touches on the issue of what your value systems are. But I don’t believe that a company can have values, by the way, just to put a marker on the table, ethics, and morality and philosophy. Now I think it’s part of this dumbing down that’s taking place, and dare I say, with all due respect to my hosts, promoted by the PR firms etc, that companies have this higher purpose. Now if you sell junk food, you can’t have a higher purpose, I’m sorry, you sell junk food period.

Fredrik:
Every company and every organization should have a purpose, and it is more interesting to look at how you rhetorically define that purpose. You can argue hamburgers are just junk food, or you can say we can help people get food if they don’t have time to cook. I’m sure you can rhetorically define anything anyway you want. So I started looking for a really grand purpose, and I found one for NASA, and if its okay can I just read the purpose for NASA. Now it used to say ‘to understand and protect the home planet, to explore the universe and search for life, to inspire the next generation of explorers’ now that used to be the purpose of NASA. However they changed it, George Bush changed it, and now it reads like this, ‘to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautic research’. Huh? Apparently they took away ‘to understand and protect the planet.’

Chandran:
It was never the mission of NASA to protect the planet

Fredrik:
Yes it was

Chandran:
The purpose of NASA was to maintain American military dominance, please be clear, this is again where we get distorted, higher or lower

Patrick:
So do you think George Bush was more accurate with his purpose of NASA?

Fredrik:
He wanted to go to Mars

Chandran:
Where he belongs

Olivier:
Chandran remind me to not to get on your bad side

Audience Question:
Olivier, can a business have a higher purpose or when you strip it down should we just be honest that it’s all about profit making?

Olivier:
We struggled trying to find an organization that we believed in and Apple of course came to mind, but that’s not a higher purpose its just to be better than the next guy at what we do. I’m not asking the what question or the how question I’m asking the why question. Purpose is about the why question, and frankly at the end of the day I asked myself well maybe the purpose in these very uncertain economic times, is to give me a reason why we should bail you out if you fail, and if you give me a good reason to bail you out then I think you have a good purpose. Frankly the banks in my opinion did not give us a reason…….

Patrick:
Other than profitability?

Olivier
Exactly. They gave us a technical reason but not really a why reason, so any firm that doesn’t have a good reason why we should bail them out if they fail doesn’t have a purpose, and frankly right now I cant find one completely commercial entity that has a higher purpose. There are hybrid organizations, and I would put universities in there, that do have a higher purpose and probably have one of the highest impacts you can look at in a societal way.

Audience Question:
Does the panel agree that purpose marking is probably a fad designed to make the consumer feel good about paying a premium for commodity items?

Olivier:
I do agree it’s a fad, but I would say it’s a poor cousin of a higher purpose. It’s like a department who wants to do good but doesn’t have the board support to do that so they try to align the commercial needs of the organization with something that they believe in. Some do it deceptively just to make money, and some do actually believe in it. At the end of the day, I’m thinking is that academic, do I really care, as long as good is done, and its not manipulative.

Question:
Does the purpose come in the first place or is that something that follows beyond business practices?

Fredrik:
Like I said I think companies do have a purpose, and I think you start with it and someone who starts a company starts with a purpose, as in we are starting this company because we are going to solve this problem, and if the marketing is supporting that, I don’t think that is a fad, it’s what you should do.

So-Young:
I guess the question I ask is, is it the chicken or the egg, is it that purpose marketing is happening because the company decided we need to start pumping premium prices with this type or marketing, or is it that consumers are now demanding more than just the functional value of a product. I have three cups here, and if I’m going to choose to buy this cup or this cup and I know that this company is using sustainable material and I’m curious to know the story and reason behind that, is that something that could be resulting in the fact that now they need to figure out what their purpose is. For me this questions is not about distortion of words and distortion of marketing, but really is there something that is happening in this generation of people who are saying I actually want something that is more purposeful and more meaningful.

Audience Question:
Do you think the nature of capitalism contradicts higher purpose?

Olivier:
We all have a dual personality disorder. This we all seem to agree that as employees we all want to work for a company that inspires us with higher purpose, but the second we become a consumer, we forget that. So do we walk through capitalism with a dual personality disorder, probably, but I really hope we don’t have two hats between consumerism and being an employee. If we can be a little bit more like an employee in everyday life, that would be helpful.

Patrick:
Do you think we are becoming slightly better consumers?

Chandran:
Making the world a good place, isn’t the mantra of any single company though many have used PR firms to give them slogans about caring, that is not their mission, their mission is to make profit and that’s alright and respectable. The only institution that can therefore mediate in that contradiction, is the state.

Fredrik:
As long as the company is trying to make that part of the world that they are responsible for, we can’t blame a company to be responsible for everything that’s wrong, but only the corner of the world that they are responsible for.

Audience Question:
Is it right to say, that in Asian countries, some of the Asians in those emerging markets, are not entitled to have what we have today; it is not their entitlement. And secondly, does the Asian consumer beyond price, getting it cheap, and it makes me looks good, do they care more or less about purpose of the company that they buy for do you think, than in Europe or in the States.

So-Young:
This question of entitlement is what I question. What are we entitled to as human beings, and is that entitlement the opportunity to pursue something that is important, that is higher purpose, that gives us joy, or is the entitlement that we must have 2 TV’s, pair of Nikes, three cars, an iPhone etc. Is that an entitlement?

Chandran:
The population of Asia is about 3.5 billion, but the consuming class is about 500 mil, if you believe the guys at McKinsey who prone to exaggeration, it’s about 700 mil, that has already rocked the world. Imagine adding another billion to that. The core issue is, what is the right of human beings, it’s not about iPads etc. It’s about the most basic to the right to live, which are the things I mentioned.

Patrick:
We are moving quite a long way down the path of sustainability rather than purpose. I would like to rein that back in a bit and I would like to ask Olivier the original question, do you think Asians care about purpose more than quality and price of a product?

Olivier:
Today I don’t think they do. I hope that they have the DNA because of the struggles they had to go through, when they reach a certain level of wealth they get it.

Chandran:
The biggest ideological fight of the 21st century is about the erosion of all the belief systems. This is the identity crisis, so you got all these Asians all looking around, and at a core they have some value systems from their cultures, but you know, out there, they all want to be MTV. Because MTV is what tells you this is superior.

Patrick:
So maybe businesses don’t need to have a purpose at all and maybe it’s the government’s role to create boundaries for consumerism

So-Young:
I don’t think it’s an either-or, question. So I don’t think it’s either the government should have boundaries or businesses should have purpose. I mean you know we are all sitting around here having this conversation, because I think don’t we all believe that we might need both. There is a role for people to play, the government has a role, businesses absolutely have a role to play, as humans and consumers we have a role to play, what I’m more interested in is what is our role and what should our role be today, and what can I do, what choices can I make today, what choices can I make as I run my business, as you run your business, government as you manage your division and agency. What decisions can you make on a day-to-day basis that have integrity with what you believe.

Olivier:
For me to go back to the central debate, to the purpose in the company, it’s actual number one purpose besides PR is to attract the right employees. At the end of the day it’s all about the people. So, the purpose is actually the self-selection, at the entrance, and that should be what guides you to hire, to fire, to promote, it stands above every fad. CEO’s come and go, founders are the ones who imprint their DNA, and they should be the ones who imprint their DNA and higher purpose into it.

Audience Question:
Do profit and purpose have to be uneasy bedfellows, or can the two go hand in hand?

Fredrik:
I would say profit and purpose are not the uneasy bedfellows it’s purpose and loss that are uneasy bedfellows. If you start a company, you say this is why we do this, if you don’t make a profit doing what you want to do, you can’t go on to do it because then the company will go bankrupt. If you make a profit doing what you are planning to do, then good you have some money left over and you can choose to invest that back into the company to solve even more of the problems because of the purpose you have. It’s not uneasy bedfellows it’s the opposite, if you lose money, that’s when you have a problem, if you believe in your purpose when you started your company

So-Young:
First of all if you’re in business, profitability is not a mission, as was mentioned, it’s not a higher purpose, it is actually I think a right to play. If you are in a business and you are not profitable, then you are actually not a business, and some of the greatest, some of the most inspiring entrepreneurs that I talk to have a higher purpose.

Chandler:
And people like Ogilvy, have huge power to bring truth and substance rather than spin.

Patrick:
And on that note of hope, we have to bring this debate to a close.

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