What seems a lifetime ago—in a galaxy far, far away—ClickZ.com debuted its first-ever email marketing conference, in Boston. For two days we packed the function hall at the Charles Hotel, turning away potential attendees because there was no more room. This was when I still owned part of ClickZ, before it was sold twice (as of this month, it is owned by UK-based Incisive Media).

As one of those managing the editorial content for that show, I put together an agenda that included... well, here's the thing: I can't remember a whole lot about who was on the agenda and what topics they were covering.

The email marketing industry has evolved a whole lot in the five or so years since that show. The issues we discussed then just aren't as pressing today, and much of the agenda, I would guess, has become irrelevant.

But what I do recall is the moment Chris Maher took the podium, just prior to lunch on day one, and unfurled a 17-page speech. In an industry dominated by showmanship, he had no PowerPoint and no graphics, just his words. He talked about connecting with real people in meaningful ways, not just "marketing" to them. In my mind, it was the best 45 minutes of the entire show.

Chris is now president of Fosforus (www.fosforus.com), a business-to-business marketing, media, and interactive design firm based in Austin, Texas. Those of you who have read his writing on MarketingProfs know that Chris is a little different from your average agency guy. He is still beating the drum about real connections (not just marketing) with real people (not just customers). Lately, he's also been worrying about the effect of all this marketing and advertising on the human soul, and thinking about the longer-term implications for our culture and society.

These dog days of summer offer a perfect time to pause for some perspective, and reflect on some of the larger issues inherent in marketing and advertising today.

Ann: It seems to me that much of your thinking over the past few years has focused on how the constant barrage of advertising increasingly whittles away at both the patience and the soul of the individual.

Chris: Yes. Absolutely. It seems that not a day passes, lately at least, that I don't think about these and related issues. I think about the effects our marketing "tools" and techniques have on others and the effects that they have on we who use them.

I just got back from an innovation conference at Stanford. There were some of the most brilliant and heralded technologists, futurists, entrepreneurs, opinion-shapers and venture capitalists in the room. Just ponder these names: Bill Joy, Ray Lane, Mark Cuban, George Gilder, Doc Searls, Tim Draper, Steve Gillmor, Kim Polese, Jonathan Schwartz, Paul Saffo and more. Part of me was awestruck by the gathering and the ideas that were seemingly in the air. Honestly, my head is still spinning. Quantum theory. The concept of "consilience." Can all the sciences be reduced to physics? Not to mention what Sun is now calling "The Age of Participation."

But another part of me was struck by how tremendously trivial most of it was. At a conference about innovation, very seldom did a simple question come up: Innovation for what? For what purpose?

Ann: So what's the measure of truly useful innovation?

Chris: That's not easy to answer. But, here's a provisional framework.

Last Monday, I sat down with Raymond Yeh, whose technology and entrepreneurship background is extraordinary. He and his daughter are coauthors of a terrific book, The Art of Business. It is no exaggeration to say that Ray has been a counselor to princes, national leaders and captains of industry. Yet, he is as humble and as good a listener—a bright-eyed, sweet-souled man—as one might ever meet. I told him about my two minds regarding the recent conference. He then told me his four principles when looking at any innovation or business or endeavor. He expresses them in a specific way. But, here is my "copywriterly" version, phrased in the form of questions:

Will this add to the peace of the individual?

Will this create more harmony in the society?

Will this increase compassion among the wealthy?

Will this increase hope among the needy?

To those with a certain turn of mind, these questions will seem soft-headed, fuzzy and actually inappropriate for any serious businessperson to consider. But as a pragmatic businessperson who is blessed with a successful and growing business, I find each of these questions to be relevant to the choices I make.

Marketing does not exist in a vacuum, in some special compartment, isolated from the world of consequences. Marketing is not a value-neutral activity. The choices we as marketers make reflect (whether we are conscious of this or not) a worldview and a conception of those on the receiving end of our messages and campaigns.

Ann: As a marketer and advertiser yourself, do you ever feel frustrated by the lack of meaningful context? In other words, do you ever want to chuck the whole ad business and pursue a less morally stressful career?

Chris: Just yesterday I learned that Fosforus's foremost executive sponsor at our largest client (the leading enterprise software company) has quit his job. So that's a big ouch. And maybe the ad business is going to chuck me.

Seriously, though, I think that I'm in the right business. My theory is that we are entering a new era of business that puts a premium on what I've taken to calling the "values chain."

I am meeting more and more executives who are taking a long hard look at the role of business in the world. They are starting to enlarge the frame around business and see where business intersects with society and social purposes, and how business affects all of our lives.

This is how McKinsey & Co.'s Ian Davis sums it up in his recent Economist article:

More than two centuries ago, Rousseau's social contract helped to seed the idea among political leaders that they must serve the public good, lest their own legitimacy be threatened. The CEOs of today's big corporations should take the opportunity to restate and reinforce their own social contracts in order to help secure, for the long term, the invested billions of their shareholders.

So, speaking pragmatically, there is a growing base of advertising clients who are seeing the world in new ways and choosing to use their corporate platforms for advocacy. I think it is companies—large and small—that are now becoming, in essence, non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Which brings me back to those of us who have marketing and ad firms or who work for them. Who better to articulate and lend power to these new ways that business is seeing and engaging with the world than gifted writers, producers, designers, Web architects, etc.?

Ann: Give me a specific example.

Chris: We're creating a nonprofit organization and online community that will use all of our ideas and talents and promotional skills to encourage Central Texas businesses and individuals to support human services organizations via volunteering and donations. Already, we've secured an endorsement from a coalition of 21 human services agencies.

And we're just a small firm with $3 million in revenues. But, we're doing this because I think it's important that we all connect work to purpose, [and] private talents to public good.

Ann: What are some other interesting ways that companies could bring that same level of "public good" into their communities, large or small? And why is it increasingly important for them to do so?

Chris: Well, Bill Shore, the founder and executive director of Share Our Strength, wrote a wonderful book, The Cathedral Within, that I highly recommend in this regard.

I realize that (and I apologize about this) "public good" is such a Brahmin, big-money, philanthropic concept. It sounds the exclusive domain of billionaires or philosopher kings.

So let's think small and humble, rather than big. Every company has suppliers. How do you treat those suppliers? Are you straightforward and fair in your dealings with them? Are your procurement and sourcing practices corrosive—or friendly to building knowledge and fostering relationships designed for the longer term? If a customer is paying slow, are you hiding from supplier phone calls or are you communicating the straight story in a timely manner?

This is one aspect of the "values chain" that I referred to earlier.

And making sure that principled conduct characterizes your supplier relationships isn't some grand gesture, some giant check given to a local charity with the press in attendance. It's quiet, ordinary and consistent.

But, it radiates and affects the public good.

Bill Shore talks about something he calls "operational philanthropy." The concept is that businesses can, ideally, build philanthropy into their everyday operations. He cites an example of a Washington sheet metal supplier that is ISO certified and does millions in business with Boeing. It's a great supplier that does terrific, high-quality work. It also happens to be a human services organization that is committed to helping former convicts rebuild their lives. Now, Boeing doesn't do business with this supplier because it's a human services organization. Boeing wants a top-quality supplier.

I would argue that every CEO or CMO can assemble his or her own "values chain" by choosing to do business with excellent companies that also happen to be committed to making their communities a better place.

OK, but you also asked why it's important that companies do these sorts of things. The short, cryptic answer is this: You need to connect work to purpose. And, if you don't do it now, who will?

Ann: Am I looking for trouble if I ask "what's the long answer"?

Chris: Well, I'd like to say that if your company does good things that only good things will happen to it—you know, like your brand will be seen as more meaningful and customers will beat down your doors to do business with you.

And in a consumer context, I might be able to make that case. Over 20 years ago, I once heard a business professor at the University of Houston say, "Well, some people want vitamins with their hamburgers." She was being sarcastic and dismissive. But, you could just as easily say that "some people want religion or social justice or a feeling that they are part of something bigger than themselves with their hamburgers." They want their favorite brands to do things, to be engaged with the world. This adds to the promise and aura of the brand.

But, outside the consumer context, why do these things?

Well, governments at all levels are striving for irrelevance. They are ossified. They seem to revel in code words and arcane processes. They have forgotten that (to quote someone far wiser than I) "budgets are moral documents." And, we the people have created the perfect conditions for this behavior by being parties to an unprecedented assault on the whole notion of public service.

Government has been characterized as the enemy. The enemy. The government that built the highways and bridges; that stepped forward for civil rights (albeit under the flag of interstate commerce); that defends our liberties; that, when all is said and done, can be a voice for the voiceless: This is not my enemy. The question becomes, How do we bring such dead institutions back to life? But, that's not for this discussion.

So, with governments largely irrelevant and with a new breed of public servants who seem conflicted about the role of government to begin with, who can belly up to the bar and look at social problems in new ways? Who can make a useful analogy between core business processes and core civic processes, and start rethinking access to health care, food distribution, provision of shelter, affordable housing, literacy, etc.?

If not business people and other citizens, then who?

But, believe me, I can hear the push-back: "I have to run our business. I have to create value for our stakeholders."

That's when I say to the CEO that he or she should go walking around his or her company to reacquaint themselves with human life. We humans are striving to make sense of things. We crave meaning.

Here's what Martin Buber wrote back in 1936 in Between Man and Man:

No factory and no office is so abandoned by creation that a creative glance could not fly up from one working-place to another, from desk to desk, a sober and brotherly glance which guarantees the reality of creation which is happening—quantum satis. And nothing is so valuable a service of dialogue between God and man as such an unsentimental and unreserved exchange of glances between two men in an alien place.

But is it irrevocably an alien place? Must henceforth, through all the world's ages, the life of the being which is yoked to business be divided in two, into alien "work" and home "recovery"?

He goes on:

Or does there already stir, beneath all dissatisfactions that can be satisfied, an unknown and primal and deep dissatisfaction for which there is as yet no recipe of satisfaction anywhere, but which will grow to such mightiness that it dictates to the technical leaders, the promoters, the inventors and says, "Go on with your rationalizing, but humanize the rationalizing ratio in yourselves. Let it introduce the living man into its purposes and its calculations, him who longs to stand in mutual relation with the world."

When I first read Buber's words, I felt like he was yanking me from some work-induced stupor. What he was saying is, at least in part, this: Work is not some isolated, blasted precinct. It stands in relationship to the world. It can participate in and be animated by the flow of creation.

This is what I mean when I talk about connecting work to purpose.

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image of Ann Handley

Ann Handley is a Wall Street Journal best-selling author who recently published Everybody Writes 2. She speaks worldwide about how businesses can escape marketing mediocrity to ignite tangible results. IBM named her one of the 7 people shaping modern marketing. Ann is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, a LinkedIn Influencer, a keynote speaker, mom, dog person, and writer.