Thoughts

Building A Bonfire Brand.

Business

Doing good side projects; doing side projects for good.

Who’s got the time for side projects? We’re all so bloody busy. Surely these things are a distraction. Surely they’ll damage the main business.

Nope, there is an increasing move to embrace side projects within businesses as a way of growing talent and doing good.

There are myriad examples, but we decided to chat with the one and only Mary Portas about how (and why) Portas Agency encourages side projects.

DL:
So Mary, in a world that is rammed with paid projects and corporate opportunities, why encourage side projects?

MP:
I love side projects; I encourage them wholeheartedly. I see them as a way of putting something back. Our side projects are focused on doing good and helping companies, people and charities that need us. I think it is important to give back. I love a business model that means we can run side projects that change people’s lives and cost us nothing but effort.

DL:
That’s a refreshing way of looking at side projects — seeing them as a way of doing good. What are the main side projects that have emerged from Portas?

MP:
We have 3 main side projects that we continue to support. We believe in each of them. We believe in the things they support. It’s always the ‘why’ that gets us — it’s what we align with.

The first is Women for Women. This is a programme that offers tools, support and access to life-changing skills to women in war-torn countries. It provides women with vocational and business skills to help lift themselves out of poverty.

The second is Mary’s Living and Giving Shops. We developed the concept with Save the Children and now have 21 shops. The Portas team develop all the concepts, branding, design work and campaigns. The team rushed to work on this project.

The third is Kinky Knickers. This is the UK-made lingerie brand that we developed with Headen and Quarmby, who continue to make the Kinky Knicker range here in the UK. We built this brand as a side project, and it continues to grow.

We also continue to develop ideas and side projects outside of these 3, but these are the team’s favourites.

DL:
What are the impacts of those projects?

MP:
As part of our work for Women for Women, we organised a number of campaigns and events that saw 100% of the proceeds donated to the programme. Kinky Knickers is also going strong and has protected 30 jobs, as well as launched lingerie that’s good for the country. And the Living and Giving stores have raised over £10 million for Save the Children and kept thousands of beautiful clothing items alive for longer; so it’s great for Save the Children but it’s also great for the planet.

DL:
How have these side projects changed your company? What impact have they had on your people?

MP:
That’s the fascinating thing. They don’t just help the projects we work with, they help Portas too. As soon as you take money out of the equation, as soon as you allow real creative freedom, the currency of the agency becomes joy. The sunshine floods into the business, the team steps into the challenge and grows into the opportunity. People raise their game.

Side projects provide a creative freedom. Side projects that do good raise the bar higher, and the team responds. The thrill they get from nailing a brief is tangible.

The side projects we do are a litmus paper that indicates the type of organisation that we are. It all adds oxygen and fuel to our bonfire. We believe that being respectful and kind is the future of success, and this is one of the ways that we live it.
Mary Portas

DL:
Has your approach to side projects improved creativity, morale and pride in the studio?

MP:
Absolutely. The way business works is changing. The idea that you can ‘nasty’ your way to the top is outdated. Kindness wins. Kindness is the new competitive advantage.

DL:
I agree entirely. You’ve got to out-nice the competition. So building on that a little, do your socially-good side projects act as a draw for the best talent?

MP:
People hear about these things and are attracted to them. It’s all part of the reputation that we are building. No one wants to work for an organisation that doesn’t care. The side projects we do are a litmus paper that indicates the type of organisation that we are. It all adds oxygen and fuel to our bonfire. We believe that being respectful and kind is the future of success, and this is one of the ways that we live it. Where you have soul, you get talent. We aren’t afraid of showing our soul.

DL:
That’s beautiful, thank you. I love the idea of building a company whose brand is like a bonfire — a beacon to attract like-minded clients, partners and team members. Would you encourage other companies to look at using side projects to do good?

MP:
Totally, but don’t do it explicitly for your reputation. Do it for the impact and the rest will follow.

DL:
So, my last question: in a world where all agencies offer broadly the same services and have broadly the same clients, how much of a differentiator will side projects become?

MP:
It is really simple. Do great work, be respectful and kind, use your skills to do good things and great businesses will find you.

DL:
Fantastic. Thank you so much. Are there any side projects you’d love to start on now?

MP:
You bet, I want to set up a charity department store. I just need someone to do it with.

DL:
I’m up for that, Mary.

MP:
Perfect, we are on then.

DL:
Sounds like a plan.

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