What’s in a name? DOA founder explains what’s really going on

'DOA' isn't a phrase anyone generally wants to hear - so why on Earth would you use it as the name of your business? Here, the managing partner of the social purpose consultancy, Ebony Gaylor, responds to the criticism of the company's name, explains the purpose of 'purpose', and why businesses, and the planet, are on the brink of death.


Ebony Gaylor, managing partner, DOA (EG)
Vivienne Kelly, editor, Mumbrella (VK) 

VK: So explain the business to me. What is it?

EG: Adam [Ferrier], Margie [Reid] and I have felt an increasing sense of urgency about all of the global issues playing out around the planet. And like everyone, saying to ourselves ‘What can we do about that?’

So Decade of Action, or DOA, is a social cause agency, and really, what we exist to do is help businesses figure out how they can be their best purpose-led selves.

I think COVID is a really good example right now, but I think increasingly what we’ve seen over the last 10 years is that businesses know they have to play and move into these more pro-social spaces. But it’s actually really hard to know how to do that in a way that’s authentic and meaningful – that’s more than either a coin jar on your counter or a campaign that doesn’t align with your brand.

So what we’re looking at is a proposition that asks two questions, and that’s: What will you do? When will you do it? And it’s really playing on that action bias to help businesses figure out how they do purpose, taking into account their business model, their brand and products, as well as their people and stakeholders with it.

VK: The reading of DOA as ‘Dead on Arrival’ isn’t an accident – but it is pretty dramatic given what the world is facing in terms of deaths from COVID, Australia’s recent bushfire devastation and the escalation of the climate crisis. How do you intend to turn such a negative into a positive?

Are you worried it will scare brands off? And that the message could get lost?

EG: I’ve spent much of my career working with communities during tough and often crisis situations, ranging from those recovering from addiction, to people exiting prison, to the recent bushfires and COVID-19 humanitarian response with Australian Red Cross. Humanitarian issues, by their very nature are complex systems, which means there is no straight answer, there is light and shade. And we need to understand both to make serious progress fast.

The one thing I do know, is that getting people to turn their attention to these issues, and to act positively is bloody difficult.

DOA gets people’s attention.

It reinforces the point that if no action is taken, well as I’ve said “There’s no business model on a dead planet”. Also, the clock in the O is a reference to the Doomsday clock, currently set at 100 seconds to midnight. Pretty scary. So for those who are engaging with the name DOA. Thank you. I’ve got your attention, now let’s take some action.

DOA’s founders: Ferrier, Gaylor and Reid

VK: How will you make that meaningful though? There’s been a lot of chatter about brands virtue signalling, or brands not really meaning what they’re saying in 2020 and just trying to look like they’re doing something. So how will you make it so that consumers take it seriously?

EG: We have to bring together an evidence base with it – so data and insights are the currency of social change. So I think we’re in a bit of a golden era where brands can almost get away with inauthentic purpose-led stuff, but that is going to be short lived. We know that – based on whether it’s the Doomsday Clock or the Sustainable Development Goals, the planet is going backwards. Those global issues are increasing and will continue to do so.

The way that we will make it meaningful is really simply acknowledging that business is playing a role in those issues, whether they acknowledge it or not. So that might be through being a B-Corp and saying ‘Well we want to be more active in figuring out the supply chain and how we navigate all of that’ – but it’s really working with their business model.

So it won’t be enough, for example, a brand to say ‘We’re all about gender equity, yet our board is made up of 80% white males’. It’s really looking deep to say ‘Well, as a business, what is it that you’re about?’ If you are in mining, there’s no point in you doing initiatives that are about say sport or health and wellbeing, actually what we need to look at is environment or Indigenous rights. It’s really figuring out the point of potency for a business model and a brand to have the most impact.

VK: Why is it existing as a separate entity to Thinkerbell, and will there be any crossover between the two businesses?

EG: Yea, we’re certainly in a ‘Facebook official’ relationship. I think it’s important for it to standalone, because it’s not a creative agency. We’re much more of a consulting agency. Because we want to work with business to figure out how they can disrupt their business models, their production lines, manufacturing – so it’s taking more of a business-strategy lens on that.

We also don’t want to be distracted by going with some of the more obvious routes of campaigning alone. I think there’s tonnes of businesses in that space. We really want to work with leaders so they move beyond that surface-level purpose that can be a little easier to go with.

Thinkerbell partly owns DOA

So we want to get decision-making and doctrines in place for leaders so that when the going gets tough, they know how they will prioritise purpose as they move through their business decision making. So I guess we’re trying to really work with business and leaders to unpack what it takes – I guess what I’d call it is the ‘long-tail of action’. It’s not just one intervention, it’s how do you work with business in a deeper and more sustainable way to affect change at greater scale?

VK: There’s a lot going on in the world – and I can see why that motivated you to launch now – but there must be some challenges with launching at a time like this?

EG: Yes, you would think that’s crazy. And I think, and it’s probably a daily reflection and questioning that me, along with any other business would be doing at the moment, is, why do anything different right now? And I think we’re at a point in time where we are experiencing mass disruption from a very global to a very personal proximate level. And I think this is the time more than ever where we need people stepping into the space, to say “We don’t have all of the answers, but we do have really good evidence about what humans and the planet need right now. These are the first steps we need to take.”

So I think there is a readiness in business where leaders are asking themselves “How do we keep our people connected, motivated and productive? How do we think about our role, whether it’s in COVID or the bushfires or other humanitarian issues playing out?”

So I think now is actually the time where leaders are looking for somebody to work this through with, and that’s where DOA can move into that space with the evidence and models to help them along the way.

VK: It’s called Decade of Action – but what about in one year? What does success look like for the business in one year’s time?

EG: Success is in our network, and the people and brands and leaders that we get to work with. So we are looking for brands that are feeling brave, that are hugely influential on the global issues that we are playing with. So we’re not shying away from businesses and brands that would typically be seen as causing or contributing to these issues. We want a really diverse network of businesses to collaborate on these big global issues.

The business’ guiding principles

It will be leaders understanding the difference between a bright, glossy campaign and their responsibility and contribution to social issues here in Australia and globally.

And it will be having a new way for businesses to think about purpose. Corporate Social Responsibility’s been around since the ‘50s. It’s never had enough traction, and there’s other variations coming through from that, but it’s about business actually owning and taking the lead on that, rather than seeing themselves as a separate sector to the rest of the social purpose space.

VK: Why Decade of Action? Is it just because of everything going on in the world at the moment? A decade is a long time – a lot’s changed in three months, so how much could change in a decade?

EG: It’s terrifying. And it is that play on time. There’s some lovely tokenistic quotes around “We overestimate what we can achieve in a year, and underestimate what we can do in 10”.

And I think that what we know with social issues – so we’ve done some really great mapping over 100 years of what change looks like, and actually social issues usually take between 50 and 70 years to experience massive disruption. So if you look at smoking, environment, LGBT rights – it’s multiple decades.

What we know from all of our humanitarian movement colleagues is that we don’t have 50 or 60 years to sort these issues, and I particularly mean data and information security and access to valid information, I mean nuclear weapons and I mean climate. We don’t have 50 or 60 years to sort this out.

So the decade part of this is to help our clients think about time differently. And what we will always be asking ourselves is “What can we do today? Where do we want to be in 10 years’ time? And what are some of the progress points that we can see along the way?”

And I think that’s part of the challenge is to lean into that terrifying part of ‘10 years is a long time, three months has been massive’, to say “Well, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” So let’s break that down and look for what progress in social change looks like over time.

VK: How will the structure of the organisation work?

EG: I’m the managing partner of DOA, and we’ve got a bunch of collaborators working with us as well. But myself, Margie and Adam are the directors of that company, with myself and Thinkerbell being owners.

VK: Brands are experiencing shrinking budgets, as most people are. So how would you pitch to businesses at the moment that parting with money to work with DOA is worth it?

EG: My brutal response is that many businesses won’t have an option. They need to figure this out. Some of them will be able to do that internally, and I think we’ve got some really great leaders in the space globally who have invested heavily to try and figure out how they can be more purpose-led and lean into that.

I think that, whether you see it as a brand budget, a CSR budget, a people budget – there are multiple points that you can pull this across from. What DOA wants to figure out is that compass to guide business. So this isn’t about us being a massive added-on scaffolded infrastructure to all businesses. This is about getting really deeply ingrained decisions made by businesses around how they’ll be more purpose-led and the practical actions they’ll be able to take day-in, day-out.

We know that when businesses are more purpose-led, they’re going to get better engagement, better productivity from their teams, they’re going to get better buy-in and network growth with their shareholders, stakeholders and we know that this is absolutely without a doubt what customers and staff are demanding of their businesses.

So we think that the returns will come, but we also need to rethink how we measure progress and success. We have had the picture painted for a number of years now that success in business is chasing this exponential curve and growth, and that as a business model has failed us. So we need to give other aspirations to business beyond mass market consumption to think about what success really looks like. And that’s what we’re here to work with businesses on.


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