When family ties led to moves to two new cities, colleagues Anne St. Peter and Douglas Bell decided to seize the opportunity to build a new marketing consulting enterprise with what they call an “inside-out approach.” In establishing Global Prairie in 2008, they built an employee-owned firm designed to help clients identify their purpose and engage their stakeholders around it.
Now, with offices in nine cities around the globe — including their respective offices of Kansas City and Cleveland — St. Peter and Bell have further baked purpose into Global Prairie’s DNA by becoming a Certified B Corporation and adopting public benefit corporation legal status, both of which ensure the company is managed in a way that delivers value to all stakeholders. In its recent B Corp re-certification, Global Prairie scored 168.4 on the the B Impact Impact Assessment, and is now the 4th highest scoring B Corp in the world.
“We believe it’s time for a global marketing consulting firm such as Global Prairie to become more engaged in the global dialogue about conscious capitalism, and about stakeholder value versus shareholder value,” St. Peter says. “This conversation has mainly involved investment firms, business journalists, and academia, but given marketing’s role in engaging stakeholders, firms like ours have an important voice going forward.”
From the start they incorporated purpose by consciously adopting a long-term vision of success rather than seeking short-term financial benefit, St. Peter says, and that foundation serves as a steadying force in an ever-changing industry. As part of my research on purpose-driven business, I recently spoke with St. Peter and Bell about Global Prairie’s history and their belief in doing meaningful work as well as building financial success for their entire team. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Christopher Marquis: How does prioritizing a stakeholder approach change how you market for your clients? How do you choose your clients? Do you have any filters, based on your own company’s values and mission?
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Douglas Bell: We looked at building the company from the inside out and talked about culture. First, we focused on the office environment and the experience we wanted for our team. That allowed us to pivot from our colleagues to our clients. We are dedicated to expressing our gratitude in meaningful and thoughtful ways, whether it be celebrating business or personal milestones or sending a Giving Card to clients so they can donate to a charitable organization they are passionate about.
Anne St. Peter: We set out to work with people who shared the notion of business as a force for good by working in purpose-oriented sectors: human health, animal health, environmental sciences, sustainability, philanthropy, and education. That alignment also presents an enormously clear filter of the organizations and sectors that we will not work in. At the start, we had some opportunities with big paychecks attached and we had to ask ourselves, “Do we want to take the money, or do we want to stay true to our purpose and values?” This purpose alignment gives us a nice clear line of sight. Building a culture with purpose at our core is part of our strategy, and the longer we are in business, the more clients come to us because of our purpose orientation. With the growth of the B Corp movement and the focus on having a broad base of stakeholders versus shareholders, people are seeking us out as pioneers in this space, and it’s nice to see that trend.
We had other opportunities in the interim. In years three to seven, we had offers from larger companies to purchase us. In the agency world there has been tremendous consolidation and in the last 20 years large publicly traded holding companies have been formed. There is a cycle where entrepreneurs get an idea, leave a big holding company to start an agency, and then after they have grown a bit they are gobbled up by the big companies and the cycle starts again. Instead of selling, we decided to sustainability and go for the longer term strategy, one that allows us to not only build wealth for our employee owners and their families, but also do something better for the world. In short, we wanted to make our colleagues and our children proud of the decisions we made along the way.
Marquis: How did you come up with the idea of starting Global Prairie?
St. Peter: Working at a large media agency headquartered in New York City, the notion was it’s all about competition, and at some level you start to look across the board and the agencies all become almost interchangeable. A business that is supposed to be about individuality and creativity becomes instead focused on scale and size.
I have two parents who are physicians. Growing up, people would come up to me and say, “Your parents saved my child’s life.” It was a profound experience and reinforced the value of meaningful, purposeful work. Doug and I were raised in the Catholic faith with Doug attending Jesuit schools — so we both appreciate the Jesuit philosophy of “men for others.” When Doug and I first started working together, we would talk about wanting more purpose and meaning in our work and our lives.
We read about the launch of the B Corp movement in 2007 and saw an opportunity to bring this movement to the world of consulting and build a differentiated agency. Doug and I decided to write a business plan, secure funding, and build the first global marketing firm that is a B Corp, a legally certified public benefit corporation, and a 100% employee-owned company because we were disenchanted with the concentrated wealth of the holding companies. We decided that Global Prairie would work towards becoming 100% employee owned and that we would take a long-term approach with a goal of selling to our employees downstream.
Marquis: As a Midwest-based B Corp, do you find yourself in the company of many other purpose-based businesses? Are B Corps known and recognized widely in the Midwest, where there is the lowest concentration of B Corps in the U.S.?
St. Peter: There’s something special about the Midwest — a community mindset, an incredible work ethic and a strong desire to take care of others — that I heard about growing up. I think this spills over into the ethos of the businesses in the Midwest. When I moved to Kansas City, I was lucky to be surrounded by Kansas City entrepreneurs like Henry Bloch (Founder, H&R Block), Don Hall Sr. (son of the Founder, Hallmark), Min Kao (Founder, Garmin), Jim Stowers (Founder, American Century), and Neal Patterson (Founder, Cerner). I consider myself enormously blessed to have watched them build and sustain their companies and I learned so much. They were focused on the success of their companies, but they were also enormously grateful to our Kansas City community, for being such a fertile ground for their organizations. They all gave back to the Kansas City community in impactful ways. It is expected that Kansas City business leaders show up and participate in making certain our region continues to grow and thrive both now and for future generations.
While we were growing Global Prairie, I served as the chair of the board for both the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, and served on the boards of the KC Area Life Sciences Institute and the KC Area Development Council. These collaborations with other Midwest CEOs served to reinforce our belief in purpose-oriented businesses. This community engagement helps foster a really wonderful ecosystem that reinforces a collaborative business culture in Kansas City and frankly makes Global Prairie even stronger. It reinforces for me the notion that healthy businesses and healthy leaders don’t go at it alone. If your goal is to build a better business, it is mandatory to show up and help lead in your community — and support one another.
When we launched Global Prairie, we made a commitment to donate 10% of our profits annually to causes our team is passionate about. The Greater Kansas City Community Foundation worked with us to establish our Global Prairie philanthropy strategy, which entailed every Global Prairie employee getting their own donor-advised fund allowing them to decide how much money to donate, paycheck by paycheck, to philanthropy. We actively encourage our Global Prairie employee owners to be philanthropists and want to show them how easy it is to be philanthropic day in and day out.
As for the dearth of B Corps, we’ve found that Midwesterners are not big on labels and logos and brands. Midwesterners let their actions speak louder than words. Part of overcoming this reluctance to adopt the B Corp label is education and explaining the value and power of being part of the B Corp movement and then celebrating it. Once I explain what the B Corp movement is and how important it is, every Midwestern CEO says, “We’re doing this.” It’s the movement that most people don’t know about, but the idea of incorporating stakeholders into business decisions is gaining traction and awareness.
Bell: We heard the very same things in Europe about B Corp as we were launching our brand there: “The B Corp movement is a U.S. branding technique; but it’s the fundamental way we do business in Europe.” Lo and behold, global organizations like Danone and others of that caliber are now converting to B Corps and recognizing the importance of not just saying that’s what you do, but being open about it and transparent about how you choose to do business.
St. Peter: A data-driven approach works with CEOs, letting them know that the B Corps and the 100% employee-owned companies that truly have a broad stakeholder group are outperforming their peers, particularly in challenging times, like the pandemic and the 2008 recession. Since we launched Global Prairie in March of 2008, we have proof points about how we’ve outperformed our peers with 13 years of year-over-year growth and a higher-than-average employee retention rate. We are convinced our performance is attributed to the alignment of purpose, the needs of our stakeholders, especially our employee owners and really being able to tap into the B Corp and employee owner mindsets.
This has become even more relevant in the marketing industry, where traditional agencies are feeling the largest effects of the disruption of technology — from the digital revolution to the fragmentation of media, programmed media buys, to viewers cutting the proverbial cord, to the disdain for interruption advertising, to the disruption of Facebook. Audiences now have virtually unlimited, on-demand options for media consumption. Today, customers have different relationships with brands and higher expectations, and they are seeking to align with companies that have purpose and share values similar to their own.
Marquis: When large data “battles” between tech giants, like Google, Apple and Facebook, put user privacy and data collection and advertising through an ever-changing set of rules, does a more purposeful approach offer any advantages?
Bell: There are at least two elements to that question. Speaking to the global perspective first, about 10 years ago we invested in our ability to collect and analyze data. We work with clients in highly regulated industries, in terms of privacy issues and other big-picture issues around communicating the awareness of the collection of data and meeting the threshold of what’s necessary to do that. In life sciences and healthcare, the power of that information for good is tremendous. We’re creating larger data sets that are more powerful without transcending or going across boundaries that we shouldn’t be crossing.
The second point is, I think, the more difficult one, and one that I’m not certain we’re going to shape as much — addressing the underlying business model of companies like Facebook, changing the underpinnings of that business model that basically allows those organizations to grow and thrive. I’m not certain where that’s going to land, but I do believe that is an underpinning of the problem: The very thing that generates the wealth of the shareholders of Facebook is the very thing that may be causing systemic problems.
I have hopes that there are ways to change it, and maybe some of it has to do with our responsibilities as parents and society, to having a closer hold on how we choose to engage with those social media and social data experiences.