Greenhouse Pioneer: Jonathan Wise, The Comms Lab


The Comms Lab exists to support the advertising industry to redefine its purpose, or in plain terms, to help advertising agencies’do good’.The organisation comprises ofstrategists, social impact specialists and creatives, united by a desire to show agencies how to define and embody the positive impact they wish to have in the world.

Co-Founder and Director, Jonathan Wise was a strategic planner in advertising agencies for over 15 years before he slowly began to question the impact he was having on the world through his rolein advertising. After he started a Masters degree in Sustainability, he made the inspiringdecision to quit his job to focus on harnessing advertising’s strategic firepower to tackle societal issues.

We caught up with Jonathanto talk about The Comms Lab’s successesand the challenges they face, where he wants to take the organisation next, and what advice he would give to agencies and individuals wanting to make positive change.

Tell us about The Comms Lab- what’s your mission?

The Comms Lab enables the advertising industry to maximise the positive contribution it makes to the world.

What motivates you?

Ultimately, I think it’s about encouraging people to decide for themselves how they want to spend their time. There is a beautiful quote by the poet Mary Oliver which is ‘Tell me, how do you want to spend this wild and precious life?’ The majority of my working life has been in advertising and I have come to understand the link between advertising and climate change, so I’m interested in inviting people in advertising and others who make content to think about what they want to be putting into the world. This inevitably leads to complex, messy, but mature decisions about what is important and how to balance different needs, expectations and pressures.

What is your greatestachievement to date?

In relation to my current work, publishing our report Reclaiming Agency: How to Save Advertising (and Create a Better World). It was a real labour of love to get it written and published with Comms Lab co-founder, Ella Saltmarshe. In the report we propose a strategic opportunity for advertising, design, media and digital agencies to take a ‘purpose-turn’; and for them to define and embody the positive impact they want to have in the world.

Whatarethe challenges you face?

Not taking enough time to stop and be still. I heard a great story about a monk who said something like ‘I’m so busy today I need to meditate for an extra hour to work out how to fit it all in’. I wish I could do that.

What are you working on that’s getting you fired up and excited?

I’m really fascinated about creating spaces for people who work in advertising and marketing communications to explore the relationship between what they personally value as important and how this relates to what their work requires them to do. I want to give people space to explore how their values and their work can be aligned and to look at any tensions, if they exist. To do this, I’ve helped create and deliver something called a ‘How Can I Do More Good?’ day. We’ve now run them in London, Manchester and at Ashton Court Mansion in Bristol with Harriet Kingaby and Jeremy Mathieu. People who attend really seem to value the opportunity to have time to explore bigger questions about personal purpose.

Where do you want to take The Comms Labnext?

We want the idea of becoming purpose-led to be an accepted and widely adopted strategy within the advertising and marketing communications industry. This will allow the industry to diversify from a predominant monoculture of moral or value neutrality that exists amongst the big agencies at present.

Whatcan we, as individuals, do to make a difference?

Everybody can make a difference. I like to talk about worker bees. They are tiny creatures, but they make all the difference because without them, basically, the food system collapses. We all have the power and ability to make a change. What power you have, or ability to create change depends on where you ‘stand’ in a system. It is a travesty if we believe that we are powerless.

If you were Prime Minister for a day, what would be the first thing you’d do?

Probably resign and devolve power to the regions and cities. I believe they can do a much better job of looking after themselves than central command-and-control from Westminster!

What’s the coolest project or product you’ve come across?

I recently read about a global company, that didn’t have a perfect social and environmental record, hosting a day where parents who worked at the company were invited to bring their school-aged children in to the office. The parents and children went into different rooms to create a vision of the future they wanted to see. They then came back together and shared what they have come up with. In the children’s imagined future, as you’d expect, was a world where everyone got along and the animals were happy in green fields and blue seas. The question from the children to their parents was ‘How are you helping create the future we want and if not, what are you going to do about it?’ The parents then had to respond. I think this is a brilliant example of how to engage people’s heart and emotions in the typically rational ‘head world’ of business.

Can you recommend a life- or game-changing book for our readers?

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It’s the story of a telepathic conversation between a man and a gorilla. Bizarre as that might sound, it’s fantastic because it lays out the long-view of humanity’s changing relationship with nature. It frames our current environmentalsituation better than any other book I have read.

What do you listen to when you’re cooking dinner?

I have recently discovered Led Zeppelin. Cooking has become much louder.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Go with the energy. Whenever you’re not sure on what to do, go with what you have the most energy for.

Can you leave us with who’d be your Eco Hero?

Chris Seeley. She was my tutor on the MSc in Sustainability at Ashridge Business School. She sadly died last year but she had a profound and lasting effect on my life. All of the above is largely due to her. Or her enabling me to see that this is what I wanted to do.

If you’d like to find out more about The Comms Labvisit their website. We also highlyrecommend Jonathan’s book “‘Looking Up“in which he shares his thoughts and questions.You canalsofollow Jonathan onTwitter.