Can capitalism and social good co-exist? That's the question ad industry rockstar–turned–do-gooder Alex Bogusky is answering with a wholehearted yes in his new venture. Introduced this month, COMMON is the brainchild of Bogusky and fellow ad industry veteran Rob Schuham in collaboration with John Bielenberg. Described as an open-source medium for social innovation, the project is part OpenIDEO, part Quora, aiming to harness the collective creativity and knowledge of what's fashionably referred to as "the crowd" in solving the most pressing social problems of our time. It calls itself a "new capitalist brand" built on "transitioning from competitive advantage to collaborative advantage."
Core to the concept are two ideas not normally seen in tandem: The belief that the capitalist paradigm has the capacity to solve global poverty and the concern that the planet's environmental limits are being pushed to unreasonable extremes. But in an age when the economic impact of individual corporations rivals that of nations — according to the World Bank, Wal-Mart's 2009 revenue eclipsed the GDP of Norway — not enlisting the power and reach of brands in addressing our most time- and resource-intensive issues would be short-sighted at best. At least that's Bogusky’s idea with COMMON, which aims to build a bridge between "consumers" — that's us, the common people — and corporations in order to, as the project's mission states, "design a capitalism that spreads love and prosperity to all its stakeholders." The initiative is equal parts conceptual vision and empirical experiment in reinventing capitalism for, for lack of better words, the common good.
Bogusky's career has been the topic of much conversation and controversy in recent months. Last year, he left his namesake agency, creative hot-shop Crispin Porter + Bogusky, king of the ad industry's castle of awards-driven meritocracy and even crowned Agency of the Decade by Advertising Age, only to quit advertising altogether a few months later. In some sort of Don-Draper-gone-good move, he set out to build The FearLess Cottage in his adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado — a hub for entrepreneurs, activists and artists, fueled partly by his celebrated creative genius and partly, it seems, by the guilt of having been incredibly good for incredibly long at propagating conspicuous consumption. It was there that COMMON was born.
To be sure, the notion of socially conscious consumerism — or what Rachel Botsman has termed "collaborative consumption" — is far from radical, especially in the buzzword-infested business world where catchphrases like "triple bottom line" have been steadily creeping into corporate manifestos for nearly a decade. The topic, however, seems to be particularly dear to prominent ad industry expats. This month also marks the announcement of We First — a new book by Simon Mainwaring, a former Nike creative at Wieden+Kennedy and worldwide creative director at Ogilvy. Two years in the making, the book explores how social media and emerging technologies bring brands and consumers together to build a more socially and economically prosperous world.
The real question, of course, is whether and how well Bogusky will be able to distill the social signal from the ad-speak noise and actually build a meaningful platform for collaborative consumption. Then again, if anyone can make the exhilarating air of optimism coalesce into tangible, actionable change, it's Alex Bogusky. And he's got a museum of awards to prove it.