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Apco founder says new Impact practice drives change from within

Change can start at the centre of an agency, then spread out through the organisation, its clients and wider society, says Apco founder Margery Kraus. By Austyn Allison

Margery Kraus, the founder and executive chairwoman of Washington-based PR agency Apco Worldwide, was recently in Dubai and keen to talk about her network’s Apco Impact practice.

“One thing that I spent all of last year pulling together is that we formed this practice called Apco Impact,” she says. “Some of this we had been doing for a number of years, but what was interesting about this is we pulled these practices together in an integrated way: climate, gender, justice, diversity and inclusion, ESG [environmental, social and governance], purpose. All of those things that companies have been moving towards that are (I don’t want to say less financially focused, because they end up impacting the bottom line) the softer things about a company and about its culture and what it stands for.” She says that companies have had a tendency to look at their doing-good efforts in silos, often unrelated to one another.

The practice will not stand alone at Apco either. It is designed to permeate through the agency, from a central team outwards.

“We did hire people with specific skills, but if you think about it as concentric circles, the core has to be people who are knowledgeable, experienced and technically competent to be able to give advice internally as well as externally. The next people around them are the people who are going to support that core. Then when you get to the outer rings of those circles you have the rest of the company, and they also will be able to do this.” The process mirrors the way Apco once introduced technology competencies to its offering.

Kraus says it is often multinationals, particularly “the more progressive ones”, that are keen to embrace the sort of thinking that Apco Impact provides. For example, manufacturers that use a lot of water or a lot of packaging might be keen to act – and be seen to act – in a more sustainable way.

She says: “What people are realising (and the markets aren’t all there yet because they are still looking at quarterly earnings and stuff) is that in the long run companies that care about their employees, that care about the communities in which they live, not only do a better job but end up being more profitable.”

Firms are being “prodded into submission”. These prods are coming from clients, from customers, from staff and from the forces of raw capitalism. Black Rock, the world’s largest asset manager, is taking climate seriously, for example. CEO Larry Fink wrote in his letter to investors back in January 2020 that: “Climate risk is investment risk”. He added: “Sooner than most anticipate, there will be a significant reallocation of capital. We believe that sustainable investing is the strongest foundation for client portfolios, going forward.” (He re-emphasised this assertion in this year’s letter, saying we have seen a “tectonic shift of capital” in the past two years.)

In recent years companies have been focusing more on their purpose, and Kraus says it can be a journey to discover what that means for them.

Purpose, she says, is “how [companies] express why they are in business and what they care about”. She admits that a purpose proposition, even if morally right, still needs to allow a firm to be profitable: “We’re not saying that companies shouldn’t make money,” she says. “And I don’t think society is saying that, because nothing is sustainable if the companies aren’t making money.”

Nor can purpose be turned on overnight. When it comes to inclusivity, says Kraus, “you can’t just flip a switch”.

In order to bring about meaningful change at scale, everyone needs to work together. “What we found is that the problems today are so big that no one sector can handle them,” says Kraus. “Governments can’t by themselves, businesses can’t by themselves. We have a lot of governments where the leadership changes and they are not necessarily fit for purpose, so there is a lot more trust in the fact that businesses are good at coming up with solutions and that they are looking to business to perhaps think of some problems in a different way.”

She gives the example of Ikea, an Apco client. The furniture store uses a lot of natural and sustainable practices. She also mentions the work that Paul Polman did as CEO of Unilever, leading a drive for sustainable packaging, responsible sourcing and other initiatives. “There’s no such thing as a successful company in a failed world,” says Kraus.

Private companies, especially family ones, in the MENA region can take longer to evolve, says Kraus. “The biggest difference here is that you have a lot of private companies, and a lot of companies related to government. They’re not as independent, and with private companies sometimes it especially takes generational ownership time to get on board. That’s a bit of a challenge, to have these companies understand that operating in the public interest is the best thing to do.”

However, with Apco and its clients spreading the word, more people will be encouraged to do the right thing – and agencies, clients, governments and individuals can make an impact together.

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