Afdhel Aziz: Accountants should help businesses realise good is the new cool
Afdhel Aziz left a successful career in marketing to found his purpose consultancy, Conspiracy of Love. He tells Laurence Eastham why accountants must help businesses redirect their energies from ‘cool’ to ‘good’
There’s no denying that Afdhel Aziz is cool. He joins the interview with CA magazine from a tastefully decorated living room in LA, wearing a snapback (translation: cap) that promotes his purpose-based consultancy Conspiracy of Love. But, in fact, it was the realisation that cool isn’t always synonymous with good that led Aziz to leave a 20-year career in marketing to establish the business back in 2017. Many working professionals will have come to the same conclusion in recent years, hastened by the arrival of the pandemic.
“I spent the first 20 years of my working life helping brands become cool, whether it was partnerships with Lady Gaga or Coachella,” recalls Aziz. “But it stopped being exciting. I want business to be a force for good. And we’ve seen a cultural shift. Consumers want to buy products and services from companies that do good. Employees want to work for those companies and feel like their work matters. And investors are saying they want to put money into companies that have social as well as financial impact. Now, brands are having to learn to be good, just like they learned how to be cool.”
To help them along, Aziz advocates a new kind of capitalism, taking the best bits of the current system and rethinking others to put purpose at their heart. His new book, Good is the New Cool: The Principles of Purpose, is upfront about the fact that business doesn’t always get things right. There’s a list of eight main faults with capitalism today, with accounting fraud featuring in the hall of infamy, which we get onto later. But Aziz is clear that he doesn’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater – the book is a manifesto for evolution rather than revolution.
“I’m very clear about the downsides of business. Every day you wake up to some new headline,” he explains. “But there’s a lot of good things in capitalism that we need to hang onto: innovation, risk-taking, scalability. It’s like an operating system on your computer: it needs constant upgrading. And that new definition needs to be around social and environmental impact. After all, the point of capitalism is to make money by solving the problems of the world, as opposed to creating new ones.
“The signs are encouraging when we talk to people on the consultancy side of the business. We’re working with big companies like Adidas, PepsiCo, GlaxoSmithKline and Mondelez and they are sincere about changing things. They’re making headway. It’s slow because there’s systemic inertia – it’s been ‘business as usual’ for 100 years – but it’s happening.”
The danger of good becoming the new cool, however, is that it may incentivise “purpose washing” – companies paying lip service to social and environmental causes without any substantive changes being made. Aziz highlights Audi’s 2017 Super Bowl advertisement as an example. The message? Gender equality. The number of women on Audi’s executive board at the time? Two out of 14. But the former marketer isn’t too worried about such incidents becoming commonplace, invoking the name of yet another nascent movement that is taking the world by storm.
“We are living in the age of cancel culture,” says Aziz. “That is aimed as much at companies as individuals who try to pink-wash, green-wash or purpose-wash. No one is getting away with it these days. It’s why we counsel our clients to be radically transparent. You have to hold up your hands and say, ‘We are not perfect, but here are the things we’re working on to get better.’ Advertising can’t solve most problems – you can’t advertise your way out of ocean plastic.”
Aziz describes Good is the New Cool as “a handbook for CEOs to transform their companies into purpose-driven ones”. It begins by listing the traits that any leader looking to bring about change must possess. Readers will be heartened to learn that financial skills make the list: the brain of a CFO, the heart of a storyteller and the soul of an activist.
“The brain of a CFO refers to the fact that you need to be able to make the business case for doing good,” he explains. “This is business – it’s not philanthropy – but it can ebb and flow depending on how the business is doing. A great CEO also has the ability to work with storytellers and marketers to not only identify what makes their company different, but be a spokesperson for it as well. And the soul of an activist is the purpose-driven part. You need to wake up and have a fire in your belly about solving climate change, income inequality or another cause.
“CEOs are the ones who can do some silo wrecking. They can get people to work together across the business. And they have the authority to set the tone for firm culture. Now, CEOs absolutely need to have the buy-in of their leadership team and employees but, as a catalyst, it’s hugely important for them to take the lead. And that is why it is so crucial for CEOs to go on a journey to find their own individual purpose as well.”
It’s a broad skillset that means accountants are already well placed to drive change, possessing the financial and interpersonal abilities necessary to become the purpose-championing CEOs of tomorrow. In particular, financial professionals are able to weave together the business and ethical evidence for doing good, creating a compelling argument that few can ignore. “How you use data to tell a story is really powerful,” adds Aziz. “Data alone or story alone is like only using your left hand or right hand. There’s an art form to using them together.”
There are some more immediate challenges for the sector to tackle, however. Aziz believes the pressure to publish impressive quarterly returns encourages some accountants to misuse their skills and misrepresent the true value of companies. In other words, the shareholder model incentivises outcomes that don’t always align with the interests of society. Aziz’s solution here is to broaden the definition of value from purely financial to purpose-based returns. But nobody said that would be easy.
“The problem with purpose measurement is that the value is in so many silos,” he explains. “And that’s why we counsel companies to build a multi-dimensional measurement model, where it’s not just looking at financial returns as a very narrow way of measuring value, but also the impact on the brand – on reputation, and on attracting and retaining employees. If you want to measure value accurately, you need to take the time to develop this model for your company.”
The practice of measuring purpose is still in its infancy. An almost overwhelming number of metrics have emerged as non-financial reporting bodies look to establish best practice and bring rigour to the discipline. Accountants today, whose work has been shaped by decades of debate and discussion, may not be particularly enthusiastic about the progress or potential of their scrappy younger sibling. But Aziz advises patience and keeping an open ear.
“Think about how long it took for us to get common metrics of evaluating digital measurement. We’re still figuring out the difference between a monthly unique view, page view, click and video view,” he says. “And that’s the same curve that purpose is currently going on, where you’re figuring out how to measure value across these different areas. Ultimately, we will be able to synthesise it and say, ‘If we spend $1 doing this, we’re going to get X return in all of these different ways.’ The whole field is going to be moving forward.”
For financial professionals perplexed by the early stages of non-financial reporting, or those simply looking to get a head-start on the competition, Aziz points towards the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) as the North Star. The 17 goals, set out in 2015, seek to address the globe’s biggest challenges, including climate change, poverty, inequality and wellbeing. And, crucially, they were updated in 2017 with indicators, targets and goals to improve measurability. Aziz views each SDG as an opportunity for the private sector to demonstrate its ability to harness innovation and creativity towards positive change.
“It’s about flipping the mentality from managing risk to seeing opportunity,” he says. “There’s a calculation that says meeting the SDGs would release $13trn (£9.33trn) worth of value. That’s where a smart CEO should be looking and thinking, ‘How do we solve these problems in a way that aligns with our business model?’ For example, retrofitting a company with solar panels could save on energy costs today as well as futureproof against energy disruptions in the future. That switch in mindset will help spot incredible opportunities for business.”
Afdhel Aziz will be talking at CA Summit. Register to book your free place.
Good is the New Cool: The Principles of Purpose (Conspiracy of Love) is available now.