Max Lenderman is CEO and founder of purpose-led advertising agency School in Boulder, Colorado. He is one of the most vocal and respected experts on experiential marketing and its role in digital and social channels. His first book, Experience the Message, has been cited as “the best book on experiential marketing,” and his second book, Brand New World, about creative marketing in hyper-markets like Brazil, Russia, India and China, has been translated into five languages. Lenderman has worked as executive creative director at MDC Partners’ The Arsenal, director of OuterActive at Crispin, Porter + Bogusky and executive creative director at GMR Marketing, the largest experiential marketing firm in North America. Lenderman began his career after serving with the Peace Corps, drilling wells in Chad. He started as a marketing journalist, and in 1999, he founded and helmed Gearwerx, one of the first experiential marketing agencies in Canada.
Necessary and Useful
How would you define purpose-led marketing, and why is it important?
Purpose-led marketing is an emerging school of thought built on the idea that creatively commercial activities should try to make the world a better place. I often remind myself of a quote I read from Design House Stockholm: “Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful. But if it is necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.” We, as the advertising and marketing industry, have been relatively fixated on the “beautiful” part. Purpose-led marketing tries to concentrate on necessity and utility.
How did your background in experiential marketing lead you to purpose-led marketing?
I wrote a book called Experience the Message, in which I tried to lay out the dominant tenets of experiential marketing, and the first chapter was titled “Experiential Marketing Must Provide a Tangible Benefit to People.” This thought has always been part of my ethos when creating campaigns for my clients. Experiential tends to occur in the real world—in the physical, one-on-one space between the person and the brand. So when crafting experiential campaigns, brands need to be aware that they must enhance, not detract from, the lives of the people they are trying to reach. If they debase the experience and it doesn’t do any good for the people involved, it’s a bad campaign and a worthless idea.
Some would assume that a social mission is at odds with profit generation and competitive advantage. Why are they wrong?
We at School believe that having a purpose is actually a competitive advantage, and a lot of recent studies and publications suggest the same thing. When you read Jim Stengel’s Grow or David Jones’s Who Cares Wins, you quickly realize something intuitively sensible: that when faced with two similar products that are similarly priced, one that has a social purpose and the other that doesn’t, over 90 percent of people will choose the “good” one. Moreover, global surveys from Havas and Edelman show that about 75 percent of the world’s consumers expect the brands and products they buy to do good in the world—but only 20 percent of the same folks think that brands are actually doing this. So there’s this massive disconnect between what people want and what brands are delivering. We at School hope to close this gap considerably.
What is one challenge currently facing advertising agencies that they need to address in order to remain relevant?
Ad agencies—and the entire industry, actually—need to reexamine what they do and ask themselves why they do it. If we take the money out of the equation, would we continue to do what we do? As an industry, advertising is the third least-trusted profession, just behind car salesmen and lawyers. How can we reform this through work that creates sales momentum as well as positive impact? How can we show our children our work and unequivocally say that it is “good?” I’m not sure many folks in our industry ask themselves these questions. Likewise, recruiting and retaining top talent is a major financial burden on agencies. We jump from one shop to another with alarming frequency. If not for salaries, perks, and a promise of a couple Lions, what are the reasons for this? It’s a serious issue for our industry—how do we create more purpose and meaning in our work so that we can attract and keep the top talent with something other than financial means and ego-stroking?
What is the most influential marketing you’ve seen recently?
I’m endlessly impressed with Dove’s Real Beauty work, and equally fascinated with Red Bull’s projects like Stratos. Between these two seemingly opposite marketing approaches, there is a sweet spot of purpose, grandeur and human spirit. The sense of humanity in the two pieces is palpable.
If you could choose any product to create an ad for, what would it be? Why?
I would choose the United States of America. What once was the ultimate challenger brand has gone stale, predictable and culturally irrelevant, yet it has so much potential for a renewed purpose on this planet. There is so much appetite for a better way forward in our political systems and global positioning.