Interview Elif Algu / Branding a Better World
"Aim at creating a positive impact, but not at your own expense"
Growing up with a business-owning father who devoted a share of his profits to the less fortunate awakened Elif Algu’s social and entrepreneurial consciousness at an early age. That she would later fuse the two disciplines by creating her own agency for sustainable branding might have been expected, but no one could have predicted her willingness to walk away from half of her client base in the middle of a financial crisis upon realising that their commitment to the environment was only skin-deep. That is until she tells you what she began asking herself before taking on a client: “Would I sell this to my kids, too?”
Interview by Daphne van Langen Translation by Siji Jabbar
Photography byJerome de Lint
What does sustainability mean to you? It means thinking not only about how you live but also about your impact on your surroundings, because everything’s connected. It means thinking holistically: looking at what you do and its effect on those around you, on the world, and on the society of which you are a part.
In other words, it’s about more than just the environment. “Sustainability” has become a widely used but not clearly defined term: a catch-all concept, if you will. People chuck in whatever suits them, draining the word of meaning to the point that few can say what exactly it entails. In my view, sustainability is a way of thinking about how to live; it’s about living consciously, and it goes beyond the natural environment.
Was this way of thinking something you grew up with? In a way, yes. I grew up in a socially conscious family. My father was an entrepreneur — a trader who owned a supermarket and later a butcher's shop — and he always gave a cut of his profits to the less fortunate. This was partly to do with his Islamic faith, but also a sign of his character. I was brought up with very liberal ideas, and my dad always told me to believe in myself and in my path.
“My mother was diagnosed with a number of disorders, including schizophrenia, and eventually had to be committed. So my father had to fill both parental roles.”
Where did you grow up? I was born in Turkey but moved with my family to the Netherlands and settled in The Hague when I was two. My grandfather had been a successful farmer, and my father, being the eldest of his kids, was supposed to join him in the business. But my dad didn’t want that, so he and my mum followed in the footsteps of an aunt who had moved to the Netherlands as a guest worker. Their aim was to start a new life of their own making, but my mother fell ill, when I was nine, which altered our family structure. She was diagnosed with a number of disorders, including schizophrenia, and eventually had to be committed. So my father had to fill both parental roles, with the help of my grandmother, who took care of us most of the time. The situation made me feel very responsible for my three siblings, but my dad wouldn’t even hear of me doing so much as the laundry. It wasn’t an entirely carefree childhood, and there were certainly periods of immense stress, but I look back on my youth with great fondness, especially the memories of our family trips and of roller coaster rides at Efteling.
The vividness of these memories may well be a component of my survival mechanism, or it could have something to do with my character: I tend to look on the bright side of life.
Besides having a bright outlook, what were you like as a child? Energetic, curious and active, but also quite reckless: I had lots of accidents, was hit by a car on more than one occasion, once ended up with a nail in the head, fell out of a tree ... I was like a headless chicken much of the time. And I was an outcast: I was comfortable everywhere but at home nowhere. That remains true today: I don’t consider myself fully Turkish or Dutch, and I don’t identify as a seasoned professional, advertising woman or sustainability nerd; and yet I embody all of these things.
After high school, you enrolled on a commercial economics course at the HEAO (school for higher education), but didn’t complete it. Why not? I woke up one morning and realised that I needed to travel, so I shelved my studies and took off for just over a year, ending up in Australia. In hindsight, I think the stress of what was happening at home might have been a catalyst: I needed to get away to spread my wings, discover the world, observe and learn from other cultures.
What did travel bring you? Self-knowledge. I developed my identity and learned a lot, because you’re forced to be self-reliant when you travel alone. It was really just me, myself and I. You find yourself in not entirely comfortable situations, such as having just ten dollars to your name – what do you do then? You become very creative and assertive. On that particular occasion I walked into a hotel and asked if I could be of service for room and board. I’d seen some rented bikes outside the hotel, so my pitch was that as a good cyclist, coming as I did from the Netherlands, I could take their guests on mountain biking tours. And just like that, I had a job. I was on the trails the very next day with ten tourists, even though I wasn’t yet familiar with the whole area.
You meet all sorts of people when you travel like I did, and these encounters tell you who you are and what you stand for. Following your heart is practically a high-performance sport. I discovered that I’m quite self-reliant, and also that we all have far more in common than the differences that separate us.
“I don’t consider myself fully Turkish or Dutch, and I don’t identify as a seasoned professional, advertising woman or sustainability nerd; and yet I embody all of these things.”
Did you develop any insights that serve you today in business? I did some voluntary work in Australia and noticed things that could have been done much more efficiently. I also noticed that the relationship between commercial enterprise and charities was founded on the idea of donations: charities needed money, which commercial enterprises could provide. But other than that, they operated as if they were from completely different worlds. If commercial organisations were really interested in good causes, they would think of lots of other ways to make a difference besides donations. And if charities really took the time to understand the capacities of the commercial world, they would think of lots more ways to work with that world than asking for donations. I think that was what planted the seed of my mission to build a bridge between the two worlds.
Yet, when you returned to the Netherlands, you initially went to work in the commercial world. Indeed, I got a job as a marketing sales assistant, working with two entrepreneurs who’d designed an anti-money laundering detection system. The work was internationally oriented and very varied: from booking business trips to briefing marketing companies in Dubai. I had lots of autonomy and was on a pretty decent salary for my age. I was also able to resume studying, which I did in the evenings. Nevertheless, it soon ceased to provide satisfaction.
Then I went to work in the sales department at Sanoma, the magazine publishing company. A lot of assignments came my way because of my specific area of interest, and I was soon devising new concepts for clients. I’d get together with all the relevant parties, and it felt a bit like running my own ad agency. We developed a campaign to boost the army’s female recruitment rate, and the realisation that we were actually achieving what we set out to do was my introduction to the world of branding: you do such and such and, just like that, you get people to do something. It was a novel experience for me, and so began my fascination with, and education in, branding.
And thus, in 2007, arose Babbels, your communications agency. It felt very normal to start my own business, because I was raised with the idea that being a salaried worker was Plan B. So when it was time, in 2007, I teamed up with designer Laura Smit. Thanks to my existing network, and despite the financial crisis, we didn’t have to wait long for clients; we rented office space within three months and hired our first employee within six. One of our founding principles was that the business had to be socially conscious.
“If charities understand the capacities of the commercial world, they would think of more ways to work with that than asking for donations. I think that was what planted the seed of my mission to build a bridge between the two worlds.”
What did this involve in practice? Following my father’s example, I felt we ought to divert some of our profits to social causes. We did this initially through microfinance loans, supporting orphanages in Bali and projects in Ghana. But later on, we developed a more concrete framework: give someone a fish and you feed them for a day; show them how to fish and you feed them for a lifetime. So we began contributing time and expertise instead of money.
It’s quite exciting, becoming an entrepreneur, especially as an autodidact. How did you find it, and what did you find difficult? I think entrepreneurship suits me because I’m headstrong and inherently curious, but of course being an entrepreneur entails more than that. For example, you need to keep an eye on the business’s financial health, which isn’t my strongest point, particularly as I’m not motivated entirely by money. I’ve become much better at it, but it’s been purely by trial and error. A friend opened my eyes by saying, “Getting a business off the ground also involves making it financially viable.”
Laura withdrew from the partnership in 2012. What did this mean for Babbels? We parted amicably, and continuing on my own gave me the chance to assess whether how we’d run things was really how I wanted to carry on. So I posed myself the following question: what sort of clients motivate me, and what sort drain me? More than half of our clients were socially or environmentally conscious, and they were the ones I found stimulating; but the other half did the opposite. It was a eureka moment. I shifted the business from merely being involved in socially conscious activity, to serving only socially and environmentally engaged businesses.
You walked away from half your client base in the middle of a financial crisis? Yes. It had serious financial consequences: we were 125,000 euros in the red and I had a staff of ten, but it felt so right that the anxiety created by the decision didn’t stand a chance. And we survived.
You had a name change in 2013, from “Babbels” to “Branding a Better World”: a branding agency with a mission to help sustainable brands grow and make big brands more sustainable. Why rebrand? We still operated under the name Babbels — brands need to get people talking [“babble” means “chat” in English] — but felt the tagline “branding a better world” made sense following our shift in client focus. The line became our official brand name on 10 October, Sustainability Day, owing, among other reasons, to a compliment from a director at VPRO in response to a campaign we’d devised for the Dutch public broadcasting company. “This is a fantastic campaign; you’re really living up to your name,” he said.
“We were 125,000 euros in the red and I had a staff of ten when we let go of half our client base. But it felt right, and we survived.”
Which is more difficult: growing sustainable brands or making big brands more sustainable? The latter. Big brands are satisfying challenge, because they have such an impact. But they’re also difficult and challenging. In 2010, we accepted a corporate assignment from a really big client, but soon realized that we would need to look at a lot more than their communications. It wasn’t merely a question of: “How do we present the brand to the public?” but also: “How do we shake things up in this cumbersome organisation?” You need perseverance and a long-term view, and have to consider all the vested interests, both corporate and political, right up to board level. I was in no hurry after this client to take on another one like it, so we put all our energy into growing sustainable brands. That is until a friend who’s a strategist nudged me in the right direction by saying: “What you’re doing is all well and good, but the real change and challenges lie precisely with the big players who don’t get it, with those that want to change but don’t know how.”
Which means? Which means we’re going to work a lot more with bigger companies, despite how draining it is. I just need to manage that potential downside better. I’m glad that my friend took off my blinkers; you need that sometimes.
What leads, your head or your heart? I’m learning to steer with both my heart and my head, and to strike the right balance between the two. I relied far too much on my heart in the beginning, and have had to revise my conviction that this was the barometer of success and truth: running a business demands both. And it demands you make a financial profit. If you are driven entirely by the heart to do what’s good, it might be wiser to work for an NGO.
“You need to begin with sincere intentions, for that will determine what steps you take. Without sincerity, you’ll unmask yourself as a fraud pretty quickly.”
What do you say to those that claim sustainability is merely a marketing trick? Anything that’s purely a marketing trick cannot, by definition, be sustainable, because anything that’s sustainable really has to be rooted in long-term thinking and go to the core of what you do. Any company that tries to use sustainability as a PR exercise without anchoring the principles of the idea in its very DNA will end up clashing with itself. You need to begin with sincere intentions, for that will determine what steps you take. Without sincerity, you’ll unmask yourself as a fraud pretty quickly.
Sometimes, even the wrong motive can lead to the right intention. For instance, the initial objective of the big corporate client I mentioned earlier was to make the brand look more sustainable; however, real change actually occurred during the process. The company ended up winning awards from international bodies for the changes, and the CEO won plaudits, too. The original motive evolved and grew, and “sustainability” went from being something to tick off a list to a brand value.
What advice would you give those that wish to live more sustainably, regardless of their income or education level? The most relevant tagline that I know goes: “A healthier environment starts with you”. Which doesn’t mean that you have to suddenly become really strict about everything; rather, just start with small steps. For example, drop meat from one meal a week; take one less journey by car a month, or carpool. Buy nothing for a week, or swap instead of buying. People sometimes think, “It’s too late, anyway”, and become paralysed by this mistaken belief, especially after seeing documentaries like Before the Flood and An Inconvenient Truth, which reveal the sheer scale of the problem at a global level. To such individuals I’d say: what you do does matter, but make the changes achievable, and just start. Tiny steps by lots of people add up to a lot.
You’re an optimist, then? The way we present this issue really matters, and I’d rather offer encouragement than punishment. I know there are those that believe the way to reduce suffering in the world and improve matters is to deny ourselves things: don’t fly, or drive; turn your heating down and put on an extra sweater if you’re cold, and so on. Not bad ideas, but I just don’t find that approach particularly constructive, not if you want to affect behavioural change on a large scale.
“We already have the know-how, the technology and the capacity to implement real change. I mean, we’ve flown to the moon!”
So what should we do? Be smart. We already have the know-how, the technology and the capacity to implement real change. I mean, we’ve flown to the moon! The sun offers enough energy to power every home on earth for nothing, but we’re yet to summon the will to accept the structural changes this would require. Nevertheless, as a thinking species, we cannot avoid such logical solutions if we hope to prevent shortfalls of all sorts, and we can make the necessary changes without denying ourselves our familiar comforts.
Still, this isn’t happening yet. Oh, don’t be fooled. There’s a lot happening, but much of it isn’t headline news. For example, the government of New York City recently filed a lawsuit against BP, Shell and other oil companies in order to hold them responsible for present and future financial damage to the city from climate change. From loss comes action. When the US withdrew from the Paris Agreement, it gave birth to opposing initiatives. Having this idiot in the White House might actually result in an acceleration of the necessary changes. So, thank you Trump. Even so, we cannot afford to be complacent. The planet is suffering, and it’s up to us all to heal it. It’s not too late, but we have to start now.
Your agency is now ten years old, and your team is now eight strong. What’s the most significant change you’ve undergone or insight you’ve had in that time? The realisation that you don’t have to own everything you need; you can share things. We used to rent office space in an elegant building, until we realised this no longer corresponded with our values and aims: we had far too much unoccupied space. I also felt we should go minimalist, so we set ourselves the challenge that we should be able to relocate within an hour. This saw us get rid of filing cabinets, replace the iMacs with laptops, start working in the “cloud”, and move to a shared space. We’ve become much more sustainable as a result.
Which ties in with one of your mottos: “Be the change”. In what ways, though, haven’t you been able to apply this? In many ways, because it’s a continuous process. I’ve become somewhat less hard on myself, which means I’m also able to appreciate the small steps and changes. For instance, I was in the habit of gauging our success by our size, forgetting altogether that I never set out to own a large agency in the traditional sense in the first place. I’d like instead to extend our impact; that’s our driving force, not how many people we employ.
“I’ve become more environmentally conscious because of my travels: you see a world so beautiful that you become more determined to look after it.”
There are still doctors that smoke. What is your guilty pleasure? Travelling. But as I mentioned earlier, I don’t think the solution lies in forsaking the results of our technological achievements. We have the possibility and means to travel, so the solution isn’t to deny ourselves this comfort but to make it sustainable, for instance by finding alternatives to kerosene. Furthermore, travel has a beneficial function, in that by physically bringing us together it makes the world smaller and allows us to connect across cultures. I’ve become more environmentally conscious because of my travels: you see a world so beautiful that you become more determined to look after it.
There’s so much out there on sustainability, but which books, essays, films or TED Talks would you recommend? The book Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard, founder of the sustainable outdoor brand Patagonia. I was inspired not only by his vision for the company, but also by the way he implemented it. I’d also recommend the documentary Given, in which a six-year-old boy describes his voyage around the world with his hippie parents.
But my greatest sources of inspiration are my kids; they represent why I do what I do, and they’re my conscience. People sometimes ask how I decide whether to work with a brand. There are all sorts of business-related tools for this, but for me it simply comes down to one question: “Would I sell this to my kids, too?”
What would surprise anyone who knew you in your teens if they saw you today? That I’m now so serious! I was always the reckless joker, a sort of butterfly, just flitting about. I’ve become much more grounded.
What advice would you give those who share your ideals and would like to establish a sustainable business? Just start. And believe in it. The best advice sometimes sounds very simple. “Done is better than perfect,” for instance. I know for myself that I sometimes fail to act because I’m busy chasing my own tail out of fear or perfectionism. You need to snap yourself out of it, when you find yourself doing that. And if your first attempt isn’t working, take a different route.
And what advice would you give your younger self? Aim at creating a positive impact, but not at your own expense. And trust in yourself; things will always work out in the end.
Finally, when you appeared on the NPO programme “de Ochtendkus”, you said, “The planet will save itself; it’s humankind that’s facing a problem.” If you could bury a time capsule with items reflecting this era’s environmental mistakes, as a warning to future civilisations, what would you include? I’d like to offer a quote in response: “We often forget that we are nature. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we have lost our connection to ourselves.”