Should business have a purpose?

Business is not separate from society.

In February the Public Services (Social Value) Act came into force. The Act very simply requires public authorities to procure services in a way that generates social value. This was a piece of Tory legislation (gasp), so well done to Chris White on seeing his private members bill through to the end.

Social Value seems a long way away from the capitalism of the 1970s and 80s when Milton Friedman famously wrote in his book Capitalism and Freedom: "there is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud."

This is often condensed into the “business of business is business” quote. This finds clear resonance in the UK Companies Act where the goal of business is to maximise profit for shareholders.

Apologists for Abstract Expressionism in New York in the early 20th Century, Alfred Barr and Clement Greenberg, made strenuous claims that painting was about surface and colour and nothing else, getting rid of the difficulties of subject matter. Like those art critics, doesn’t Friedman’s abstract view strip business activity of all sense of production, all politics and all purpose, leaving it to do its own thing and have no particular social relevance? Such commentary allows for a discussion of business in the absence of any knowledge of what they actually do and what impacts they may have.

Isn’t it just very convenient to isolate business from society when society isn’t very happy with it and is losing a strongly-held faith in the world of business? 

The Edelman Trust Barometer for 2013, which surveyed over “31,000 respondents in 26 markets around the world and measured their trust in institutions, industries and leaders”, opens with the words:

“The 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer demonstrates a serious crisis of confidence in leaders of both business and government.”

The Barometer shows that whilst trust in institutions including businesses rising modestly, the quality of that trust is feeble: the respondent’s category for “Trust a great deal” is at 16 per cent in government and 17 per cent in business and media.

This is pretty lamentable. Business is not separate from society; it is a social activity, literally being busy. To make this clear, the now well-worn quote of Bjorn Stigson, when president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, that “businesses do not succeed in societies that fail”, needs to be read alongside the Kofi Anan comment that it is the absence not the presence of business that has condemned the much of the world to poverty. 

We have started to see the emergence of a new sense of entrepreneurship which is increasingly called responsible capitalism in the shape of businesses and social enterprises that combine a sense of social or environmental purpose with profit. We can see this in the Social Value Act. How long, we might wonder, before it is common practice for all organisations to think about the social value they create. Would then the Companies Act, instead of enshrining the purpose of business to be profit maximisation whilst nominally nodding at the needs of society and the environment, in fact require businesses to have a purpose in society and, in fulfilling that purpose, they should of course make a profit. 

That might make people trust businesses more; it might make people feel that instead of being self-serving, businesses are in fact part of society.

Richard Spencer is Head of Sustainability at ICAEW.

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Will Ireland
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Rock solid-arity: how fans and bands helped save Team Rock's music magazines

“It was purely helping out friends in a time of need.”

A little over 25 years ago, a journalist friend let me in on the secret of publishing success. He cut his teeth in the Sixties as an editor in the Yippie underground press, wrote for Rolling Stone, Associated Press and the Chicago Sun-Times, then went on to teach at one of America’s most prestigious journalism schools.

The big secret, he had concluded, was community. No more, no less. Get to know your community and serve it well.

A quarter of a century on, it’s sometimes hard to remember what community looks like in newspapers and magazines. Carefully crafted pages have been obscured by a haze of clickbait, engineered to sucker everyone and anyone into donating a drive-by page view for ads. Community has given way to commodity.

But occasionally, there are glimpses of hope. Six months ago, TeamRock.com, built around a group of specialist music magazines including Classic Rock, Metal Hammer and Prog, went into administration.

The Christmas closure came brutally quickly. The Scottish Sun reported that stunned staff in the company’s Lanarkshire headquarters were told they had been made redundant “as a joiner changed the locks on their offices”. In total, 73 staff were laid off; nearly 30 in Scotland and more than 40 in London.

At the close of 2016, the future for the Team Rock brand and its stable of magazine titles was bleaker than a Black Sabbath album. But last month, in an extraordinary reversal of fortunes, TeamRock.com was named the most influential rock music website in the world.

Bargain-basement buy back

Just a fortnight after its shock closure, the brand was bought by former owners Future Plc. In a no-brainer deal, the Bath-based publisher re-acquired the three magazines it had sold to Team Rock’s founders in 2013. It bought back assets sold for £10m at the knockdown price of £800,000 with the bonus of TeamRock.com and Team Rock Radio. The deal rescued large parts of the Team Rock operation – but its soul was saved by the rock and metal community.

Oblivious to any discussions going on to rescue the magazines, readers, music fans and bands came together in a stunning display of loyalty. Hearing that Team Rock staff wouldn’t be getting paid their Christmas wage they took to social media to pledge their support and raised almost £90,000 for redundant staff.

Ben Ward, the organiser of the crowdfunding campaign and frontman for heavy metal band Orange Goblin said he started the appeal with no thought for the business. “It was purely helping out friends in a time of need,” he explained.

He had read all three Team Rock magazines for years, socialised with their staff and promoted his own and other bands in their pages. “To think of a world without any of those magazines – it was devastating,” he said.

The response to the campaign brought him some cheer, with members of bands such as Queen, Rush and Avenged Sevenfold all posting about it on their social media pages. He added: “The whole Christmas period, my phone just wouldn't stop beeping with notifications for another donation.”

Show of solidarity

Though the fundraiser blew up all Ward's expectations, beating his initial target by more than 400 per cent, he didn't seem completely surprised by the scale of the response.

“Heavy metal and hard rock, people that are into that sort of music, we've always been sort of looked down upon. We know it's not commercially the done thing, we know it's not the norm to walk around with long hair and tattoos and dirty leather jackets. But when you see a fellow metal head in the supermarket, you always give them an approving nod. There's a kind of solidarity.”

While favourable capitalist arithmetic has kept the presses rolling – and the online servers going – for Team Rock, it was the music community – empowered by social media – who delivered the real resurrection. With a combined Facebook following of more than 3.5million and a total social media audience of almost five million, it was no surprise TeamRock.com was soon number one in its field.

“What's brilliant about this is that it's based on what music fans share with each other,” explains editor-in-chief Scott Rowley.

TeamRock.com became the most influential rock site based on social media sharing, and came fifth in the top 100 sites across all music genres. The site above it is a hip-hop title, again featured for the strength of its community, according to Rowley. “Those people really know what they're talking about, they want very specific content, and they're not getting served it elsewhere,” he said. “When they get it, they love it and they share it and talk about it and that's their world.”

Responsiblity

Following the outpouring of support for the rock magazines, Rowley now feels a heightened sense of responsibility to do “the right thing” and steer clear of cynical decisions to get clicks or put certain bands on the cover just to sell copies. He believes future success will come down to trust. “Sometimes that feels precarious, but equally I think we're in good hands,” he explains. “We're a business, we've got to make money, but we know what smells fake and where the limits are.”

Zillah Byng-Thorne, CEO of owner Future, recognises the need to balance the realities of running a listed company with the authenticity needed to maintain trust. “What Future is interested in is the passion that underpins specialist media,” she says. “I don't really mind what your passion is, what's important is that it's a passion.”

“No one is sitting around thinking, 'I wonder what bands sound like Thin Lizzy?',” says Rowley. “We're much more a part of their lifestyle, interrupting their day to tell them someone’s just released an album or announced a tour.”

“But it doesn't have to always be about fishing for clicks,” he adds. “I remember [Classic Rock online editor] Fraser Lewry saying, 'Sometimes on social we should just be being social'.”

Being social. Listening. Contributing to the conversation. Sharing the passion. That old-fashioned notion of serving the community. It seems Ward would agree, as he offers the new owners of the magazines he helped to save some advice: “Don't make the same mistakes, investing in things that weren't really necessary from the magazine’s point of view. I'm in no position to tell anyone how to run their business, but on behalf of the rock and metal community…keep it interesting, keep it relevant.”