The 3rd Third
A revolutionary brand for social entrepreneurs, why I went with it and why you should, too.
Following is a detailed version of this story published June 16 in the COMMON Medium Magazine.
Have you seen — I mean really seen — the video on the front page of COMMON’s website? In it, co-founder Alex Bogusky explains the original thinking behind COMMON:
“Drop a stone in a bucket [of water],” he says, “and the ripples radiate out.” It’s a metaphor for the multiple crises we’re living in. Economic growth, as we’ve painfully learned, is not boundless. We, the ripples, “have hit the edge. The planet is finite. What was once business as usual must become business as unusual.”
So the founders got together “to get down to the business of imagining the future.” In particular, they explored “a new agreement between consumers and corporations.” As it stands now, a brand can represent half or more of a major corporation’s total value, but the rules of traditional business are such that “the benefit of brand value only accrues to the company itself. Not to society, not to the environment, and not to generations of the future.”
And then they asked THE question: “Why? What would happen if a brand could be shared just like any other asset? The answer to that question created COMMON.”
That, my friends, is revolutionary: an opportunity for hundreds of independently owned “mutually supportive businesses” to unite under a shared brand. Together, they form a community that in turn owns and manages the brand, allowing all of them to benefit from its growing value.
Toward large-scale change
As social enterprises, we must ask ourselves what that revolution means in practice. What happens when we accept the invitation to launch a COMMON-branded venture?
I’ve been a COMMON member since 2015, partaking in the “one third” that’s a member network (akin to a trade association), where we connect with each other to #DoShitThatMatters. I also helped recruit members for the one third that’s an incubator/accelerator. BTW, those are two of the three parts of COMMON Alex explains in the video.
Last October, I decided to take the plunge into the 3rd third (the shared brand) by launching COMMON Future, a content & strategy studio focused exclusively on raising awareness around the need for climate adaptation. (Talk about the edge of the bucket, right?!)
I’ve been in sustainability and climate communications for some time, but as a solo entrepreneur with limited resources, I found it quite challenging to land the kind of large accounts that would enable my work to provoke greater social change.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my smaller clients. But climate adaptation has reached a point where a far bigger and more urgent jolt is called for. With no one out there really getting it done, I decided to go for it.
But it was clear I couldn’t hit that large scale if I stayed solo. I needed a large, multinational, massively talented team. And given the urgency of the moment, I needed it NOW. The only way a large client would talk to me is if I could say “we” and bring others to the table seamlessly.
So I changed from Alex Díaz Eco Consulting to COMMON Future and worked closely with COMMON’s CEO, Mark Eckhardt, to curate a team of member agencies, culture/leadership coaches and creative powerhouses. I go out there, do the business development and lead strategy, and match clients with COMMON members on the team. That happens to be my agency model. For other members, the particulars vary.
Could I — or any of us — create the same teamwork without becoming a COMMON-branded venture simply by reaching out to COMMON members to work on accounts? Technically, yes, of course. But then I would still be Alex Díaz Eco Consulting, the solo firm in Puerto Rico, merely making referrals to others.
By having the COMMON mark in my name and becoming, in effect, an affiliate firm of the organization instead of just a member, I become COMMON. We are now one and the same — independent, yes, but affiliated. I have my own agency website, commonfuture.world, to distinguish my services, but common.is becomes, as it were, a parent website. It is full integration.
Suddenly, I had scale and a team. Overnight. Without investing a dime or spending a decade building either. When I talk to prospective clients, they are now talking to a large agency group, not a solopreneur. And that has made all the difference in my business.
Notice on my website how I showcase and pitch the work portfolio of our COMMON agencies, which are second to absolutely none in the whole wide world. Again, we are one. Integrated, yet independent. Notice also how COMMON Foundation, the second member to become COMMON branded, does exactly the same thing, in their case adapted to an NGO structure.
This model isn’t much different from, say, a BDO accounting firm or a NAI real estate broker. Both are global networks of independently owned companies, each solo before joining, that are now able to pitch the dual benefit of the nimbleness and lack of bureaucracy that comes from independence with the depth of talent and capabilities from teammates across the network.
And like BDO and NAI, if you opt not to adopt the shared brand and instead stick to the collaboration model among nonintegrated firms, you’re then perceived by clients as being small and solo, without the benefit of the back-end infrastructure provided by the network. So the client can’t be blamed for not placing as much trust and credibility on the staying power and coordination of whatever collaborative arrangement you create. The scale cannot be faked. It is real and tangible.
Purpose: the difference maker
But COMMON isn’t BDO, NAI or any other regular corporate network. Aside from scale, integration and talent, the big value proposition that sets us apart and strengthens each of our individual brands when you go from being a member to becoming COMMON branded, is our shared social entrepreneurship.
I’ve always emphasized, when pitching to a client, that I am motivated by the purpose of making a difference and changing the world. “You’re not hiring just another consultant,” I say. “You’re hiring someone who lives for a bigger outcome — who feels it and means it.”
The commitment runs deeper. The passion goes further. And it comes across in what we produce. When aligned with the communications the client wants to deliver, the cause has concrete value and becomes a big reason to hire me vs. another agency.
Today, I’m able to multiply that effect for clients, because everyone under the COMMON brand is equally passionate about changing the world. Our talent makes us a great hire, but that shared purpose makes us a uniquely compelling one. Clients know that the work they do with us will go deeper and further for future generations.
And so in my case, conversations and deals are happening that would not be happening were I not COMMON affiliated and branded. I’ll be ending 2019, my first full year as COMMON Future, with a dramatic increase in sales over 2018 and every year before. At this writing, after several months of team-building, model fine-tuning and client pitching, I’m on the verge of closing several large-cap accounts, with plans to hire staff and move to a larger space.
Of late, our path has become even more exciting because the world has begun moving inexorably in the same direction, as the climate crisis escalates and adaptation goes mainstream. The timing could not be better for an agency group to pioneer a refreshing, effective way to raise massive public awareness and help everyone get ready for what’s coming.
There is one other level of value in adopting the 3rd third.
I was the first COMMON Venture, but as we grow to number in the dozens and hundreds some years from now, that value will grow with us. When that COMMON mark is in the brand names of countless social enterprises around the world, covering multiple industries, the global recognition the COMMON brand will command will be so huge as to create the large-company-like brand value Alex highlights in the video, but in our case, as he dreamed that day, have it accrue to all of us.
It will be a significant part of our profitability without any one of us having to make the insane capital investment to build the brand value that traditional corporations must make. We get to skip that nasty part!
In our model, investment is dispersed. Each of us invests in our own business, but since we share the COMMON brand, the sum of our individual successes will augment the value of the brand. When you exit your business, sell it to buyers or pass it on to heirs, the value will be far greater for sharing in the equity built into your firm all these years as a COMMON Venture.
There can be, my friends, no better icing than that. As you run your business today and gain from the immediate benefits of being COMMON branded, you’re building value for the long term, collaboratively.
Because building our shared COMMON brand may not take a large capital investment, but we do have to invest something. We have to invest commitment. We get to co-manage the growth of that brand equity between now and then, helping to screen the new companies that join to ensure alignment with our shared values, mutually supporting each other to help everyone grow and succeed, because the performance and reputation of each of us will impact all of us.
That, too, is what it means to have a shared brand, one that is managed by the community, not by a brand team in some removed C-suite up in an ivory tower HQ somewhere.
After all, what’s in a brand, right? A brand isn’t a name, logo and color code. A brand is everything that comes to mind when thinking of a company. Price. Quality. Delivery. Product variety. Service. Place. Size. Sustainability. Ethics.
Today, when a large prospective client looks at COMMON Future and weighs saying yes, s/he is looking at all of that, now enhanced and nuanced by everything COMMON has built into the brand in the last eight years since its founding.
Tomorrow, they will also look at the global expanse of our hundreds of COMMON ventures, the dynamism that represents, the massive global and local change we’re creating collectively, and they’ll have even more reason to say yes.
We will be, in effect, a movement they will want to join, not just a competitive service they will choose to buy — a movement that is redefining business, because we’ve hit the edge of the bucket, because it is time for business as unusual that takes care of future generations, time for a new agreement between consumers and providers. And they’ll be damned if they’re not part of it.
COMMON began as an exercise in imagining the future. Well, the future is now. It is here. And it is ours to lead.