Motivated by the Heart and Asking for Meaning as Compensation, 27 Years as a Social Entrepreneur and Over $2MM in Contributions
with Russ Stoddard- CEO & Founder of Oliver Russell
Welcome back to the Grow Ensemble Podcast! Our guest on today’s episode is Russ Stoddard, the founder of Oliver Russell, a socially conscious business that builds brands for purpose-driven companies. Russ started Oliver Russell in 1991 and has been at the helm ever since.
In our conversation, we cover the beginnings of the company, the founding ideas
We also talk about the social impact that has come to characterize much of Oliver Russell’s history and how Russ manages this aspect of a business that needs to remain profitable. You really get the sense that this is Russ’ true calling and hearing him detail his journey and beliefs is a great motivation!
So join us for this massively inspiring chat and get it all!
00:07 (Cory) — Hey y’all. It’s Cory here with the Grow Ensemble Podcast where I speak with social business leaders about both the successes and challenges of running their organization as well as the causes and missions they are driven to impact. In today’s episode, I have the great pleasure of interviewing Russ Stoddard, CEO and founder of Oliver Russell—an advertising agency located in Boise, Idaho. They are a B Corporation. They are a B1G1 company and over the span of their 27 years in business, they’ve given over $2 million in contributions back to the community.
In our conversation, from one of Oliver Russel’s conference rooms, Russ shares wonderful insights and experiences from his prolific career as a social entrepreneur. He tells us a bit about where that $2 million in contributions has gone, how Oliver Russell has managed to make that level of contribution to the community, and of course Russ humbly gets his perspective on what’s allowed him to make his way successfully as a social entrepreneur. Really enjoyed this conversation with Russ and I think you will too. And just a reminder, if you like this episode, please let us know in the comments growensemble.com or with a review on your favorite podcasting platform.
And lastly, before we dive in, don’t forget about our podcast launch giveaway where we are offering up a Harkla weighted blanket. Excellent for calming the nervous system and promoting better sleep. You can learn how to enter the giveaway at growensemble.com/launch giveaway. Alright, enjoy this episode of the Grow Ensemble Podcast with Russ Stoddard.
02:00 (Russ) — Hi, my name is Russ Stoddard of course, and I’m CEO and founder of Oliver Russell, which is a purpose-driven advertising agency. We work with clients that have a product, service, or business model that benefits society.
02:15 (Cory) — Awesome. Excellent. And you know, as I was doing a lot of research about you, about your company and the number of different projects that you’re working on, I was kind of overwhelmed first and foremost with the amount of things that you’re involved in. So I’m kind of curious just to start, where did that appetite for social entrepreneurship for entrepreneurship in general start for you?
02:35 (Russ) — Oh Geez. You know, I guess I’ve always had it in my DNA. I don’t know that you necessarily develop it. I kind of believe you either have it or you don’t. And once you have it, it’s really tough to deny that in yourself. When I really got my big start in it separate from your little lemonade stands or all sorts of little businesses growing up. I was at a point in time when I had one business—well, I guess I actually had a business that was retail and it was failing—I had a spectacular job at a large corporation where I had just qualified for the executive benefit program, which included stock options and a pretty hefty bonus. And at the same point in time, I had a four-year-old and a four-week-old and one day I just decided I’m quitting and starting an agency. So historically have not been very good about a due diligence and discovery or what have you. I am motivated by my heart and I just jump. Sometimes that leads to great things other times you a splat pretty hard. So that’s kind of how I got started in it.
03:43 (Cory) — It seems like an exceptional risk to take with the young family and everything like that. How did you go into making that decision?
03:52 (Russ) — Well the decision process involved a drive back from a wedding in Portland, Oregon and I was with my four-year-old daughter. And when we left Portland, I had no idea that I was going to quit my job. And I was listening to a Peter Gabriel album over and over and over. And there’s one song called “Don’t Give Up.” And just something struck me about three-quarters of the way through the drive, I’m going to quit my job and start a business. And I got home, my wife said, “How was the wedding?” And I said, “Awesome. I’m quitting my job, starting a business.” And she said, “What the hell?” So that was the process.
04:37 (Cory) — And so if I have my dates right, that’s Oliver Russell now, right? That was the agency that you then started? And that was in 1991 is that correct?
04:47 (Russ) — 1991. My son is 27. That’s how I remember how old he is.
04:50 (Cory) — Oh Man. And so what were some of those early days like starting the agency, figuring out how to run your own business.
04:58 (Russ) — I had no idea how to run an agency. My only window into it was a lunches that I’d had with the agencies that worked for the corporation and where I was employed. So I really had no clue and I just kind of invented it as I went. I just figured like, here’s the deal. You get a client, you agree on how much you’re going to charge them, you produce the work, then you go onto your next project, right? So it was really, really back of the napkin type stuff.
05:28 (Cory) — And what kind of work were you doing for these folks early on?
05:31 (Russ) — Oh, primarily we started as a PR agency. So a lot of work around brand reputation, publicity, a little bit of public affairs work and it’s interesting right out of the shoot we won two Bronze Anvil awards from the Public Relation Society of America. Those are really, really lofty awards and we were the only agency west of the Mississippi to win those awards and we won them two years in a row. So we were really a little ass kicker in the realm of a PR. So we thought at that time,
06:06 (Cory) — That’s excellent. Some tremendous early successes. Did you feel like there was any kind of inflection point a bit in those early days to where you’re like, okay, I have a sense for what I’m doing and like where we’re headed?
06:17 (Russ) — The inflection point was when I realized I have no clue about what I’m doing. So we started out with a bang and everything went great. We were winning awards, we were exceptionally profitable. And I thought, “Oh man, I am a business guy. I was born for this. I am really something special.” And then all it takes is some adverse circumstances. You know, the economy crashes a bit, what have you, and you realize that you can work far harder and smarter when things are crappy and get absolutely no results than when you did when the world was just kind of accepting and friendly to what you were doing.
06:55 (Cory) — And kind of curious then, what do you feel like started to have Oliver Russell take the turn of being more of a socially focused business? Was that in its DNA from the beginning?
07:07 (Russ) — DNA from the beginning. We’ve got four core values. One is to be a creative; Second is to be collaborative; Third is to be progressive in all we do. And we define that by moving forward, by embracing change. The last one is to be socially responsible. So we’ve been in that– I just wanted to create a business that actually added to the world rather than subtract it from it.
07:30 (Cory) — Hmm. And I think that’s really unique because I think, I mean, well for one, there’s so many businesses, so many small businesses and a lot of people who want to get into starting their own, but they don’t have that initial appetite to do good with it or give back to the world in some way with it. Where do you feel like that came from to have, you know, have that gumption?
07:50 (Russ) — Oh I guess some of my compensation I derive from the business is actually the meaning I’m able to create through it. Whether it’s with the folks who work here at Oliver Russell, whether it’s in the community with stakeholders, for me it’s just like earning a paycheck, making money is not enough for me. And making money is actually for me, kind of a consequence of doing good in the world, I wanted to create a business that would actually make our community a better place and do that intentionally. So…
08:25 (Cory) — Hey, y’all, Cory here. So we’ve covered a bit of Russ’s backstory thus far, how he started his agency, what his motivations were, and now our conversation shifts a bit to talk about contribution. Russ shares with us about the $2 million in contributions that Oliver Russell has been able to give back over its nearing three decades in business. We talk about where that’s gone and how they’ve rationalized that and planned for it as a part of their profit and loss statement. Check it out.
8:59 (Cory) — Were there any kind of experiences or relationships or influences that you had earlier on in your life that you think had you lean towards being more socially oriented or you know, working for more than just a paycheck?
09:11 (Russ) — I wish I could say there were any the world’s a markedly different place today, 27 years later. I can tell you that there were business people in the community that viewed us as being a little bit off our rocker at that point in time. I couldn’t quite understand that. And it’s interesting to have the validation of progress in the world to where this is really in the swim now as opposed to like an oddity. I just always had it in me and I don’t know why that is. That’s always just been a primary motivation for me. And over the years I could have made a ton more money to the bottom line. Our business has a given, oh, north of $2 million in contributions in the community over our history. I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were a few inflection points in our business over the years where we really could have used some of that 2 million. But I look at that and that’s like the kind of the crowning grace for me is that we’ve actually created something here in our community and not only our community well beyond—we’ve done stuff internationally as well—that leaves the world a markedly and measurably better place.
10:22 (Cory) — I’m curious about this particular point with, I mean 2 million and contributions over the course of Oliver Russell’s lifetime. That’s a major number. And I’m curious and I think about this as well with folks who are perhaps producing physical products and they then have to mind what are the materials that they’re working with and maybe it’s like two times the expense for something that’s organic or, you know, fairly produced in sourced. I’m curious how you’ve reasoned or thought about those contributions, those donations, just kind of being a part of your profit and loss statement. How have you come to you? Like you said there could have been points when you needed that money. How have you reasoned that that has become a non-negotiable of the way that you do business?
11:07 (Russ) — Well, we operate in a slightly different way, which is we measure ourselves on the social impact that we create, and profit is a byproduct of that. You know, no margin, no mission. So it’s like, hey, if we want to create this amount of social impact, measurable impact, and oftentimes that’s measured by dollars a, then we actually need to have this sort of top line revenue. We need to have this bottom line profit in order to support that. And you know, Cory, it’s interesting. The two million’s a big number. It’s kind of tough to wrap your arms around. It really drove home for me last year. We figured out, oh, that’s just like $225 or $250 for every day we have been in business like 9,500 days and every day that we work here we contribute that much. That’s pretty mind boggling to me. Maybe my mind is small. I don’t know. But wow. Everyday 250 bucks. That’s pretty Rad.
12:07 (Cory) — Yeah, that’s incredible. And where, where are those contributions going? Who are you partnering with and working with?
12:12 (Russ) — Oh Man. It’s gone everything from say, buying air conditioners for a senior citizens home to helping the United States Women’s Olympic fencing team when they went to Beijing and everywhere in between.
12:27 (Cory) — That’s awesome. How are y’all going about selecting where those contributions goes? It by what maybe you’re led by your heart on that one as well. What seems to need your assistance at that point in time?
12:38 (Russ) — You know, there’s a little bit of that. We institutionalized our program a long time ago to where we had a grant program. And the three areas historically that we focused on were a youth, conservation, and human rights. And then occasionally whatever moves us, right? That’s where the air conditioners for the senior citizens came in, for instance, or maybe even contributing to that gold winning fencing team. So, we would use those as parameters to kind of guide our efforts and also let people in the community know whether it’s worth their time to apply for that.
13:12 (Cory) — Gotcha. And so with those contributions, like you said, you’re analyzing the top line and like what does it have to look like for us to be able to turn out this type of social impact? Was there a particular point in the business when you’re like, okay, this is what our P&L statement has to look like now if we want to give this social impact? Or was that from its inception?
13:33 (Russ) — Oh, that you evolved? We became more sophisticated or early smarter about how we did that. And it’s funny you should say just prior to our getting together, this meeting was occupied with my CFO and my managing director and we are going over the budget for next year and we were looking at the donations as a part of that and looking at the top line or what we needed to do to make that bottom line number come out for a donations, as well as a new area that we’ve been working in the last few years, which is to make actual investments for equity with social enterprise startups.
14:10 (Cory) — Mm. How was that transition, I guess from you in this very kind of organized process to looking at the next year as an example forecasting to previously where maybe it was disorganized, you wanted to give back in some way. How did you make the transition to more of a clean cut way of doing it?
14:25 (Russ) — I think you get to a certain point in time and you start trying to figure out how can you make your time more efficient. And so that really kind of was an outgrowth of that, which was like, okay, so everyone in the world contacts us and they want money. So first of all, the deal was to create a grant application process. Very, very simple and streamlined, but that narrowed the number of people who would actually apply for grants, because it’s one thing to pick up a phone and call and say, “Hey, would you donate to our nonprofit?” And another thing to spend even a half an hour filling out a grant application. And then actually narrowing the areas of emphasis to that human rights, youth, and conservation is another way of going about that. And that was real like, hey in order to fund programs like this, we need to have as much time as possible and be efficient with it to actually build paying clients so that we can have that.
15:26 (Cory) — Hmm. And so bring it all the way back to how things are today with Oliver Russell, what is it like for you to feel as we’re sitting here in your office in Boise, Idaho very legitimate, awesome team it seems that you have, quite the collection of clients and organizations that you work with. What’s it like for you now to feel like where you are?
15:46 (Russ) — Oh Dude. Not that I have reached the summit of where I hope to be, but I’m pretty close to it. I have an amazing team. We created a ton of social impact on the world, whether that’s in Guatemala or the UK or here in Boise. And you know, we basically target and work primarily with a social entrepreneurs. And I tell you, that is so amazing to be able to do that because the folks we work with are amazingly bright. They are motivated. They have amazing hearts. And there’s just a really a different quality to the working relationship on when both client and agency realize they’re working for the same thing in different ways outside of their relationship and that the more successful the relationship is itself actually creates a social impact.
16:37 (Cory) — And so how does that forming of the relationship happen? How do you find these folks? How do they find you and how do you know what’s going to be a good fit?
16:45 (Russ) — Oh, well let’s take that. You know, we’ve been around 27 years. We’re pretty tightly positioned in the space. So there are any number that come to us by reference or reputation. So that’s like all that brand building work over the years finally starts to pay off. We do an awful lot of content marketing on the web, a lot of thought leadership, a lot of social and networking, whether that’s Linkedin or Twitter or what have you. And that stuff that amazingly enough specialize in an area and you’re in a smaller market, say like Boise, people will search you out on the web amazingly enough and find you and come specifically to you. So I can tell you any number of clients we have, whether they’re in a Singapore or Washington DC who have basically gone online, searched for something, ended up with Oliver Russell, and now they’re a client.
17:39 (Cory) — Then after they find you, what’s the kind of initial feeling out process like to make sure that y’all connect on the right things and, and that you would make good partners for each other?
17:50 (Russ) — Oh, well we still have learnings to do in that area. You know, a lot of it is just more than anything a chemistry check. Some of it is a matter of what size of an organization they are. Do they have sufficient budgets to use an agency like us? Have they worked with an agency before and then there’s a lot of just like back and forth, whether it’s over a phone call or over a Zoom video conference or what have you. And if it feels right, feels right and we go for it. And if it doesn’t, we don’t. And typically where it doesn’t work out for us is when an organization contacts us and we don’t have values that are in alignment. It’s a rare that that happens, but it does happen.
18:41 (Cory) — I guess transitioning just a little bit given the style of your business as an agency and as well, just your experience in social business over the years, it seems like you’ve been able to work with a lot of them—social entrepreneurs, social businesses. I’m kinda curious what, what has that experience been like for you to touch so many businesses in different ways who have these impacts and everything like that? It’d probably have–you just have such a diverse, I guess, experience set, I would imagine.
19:09 (Russ) — Oh yeah. Well if you love learning, it’s the absolute–if you love learning and you love giving, it’s the absolute perfect job in the world. So I can tell you we’re working with the group that works in the affordable housing, has a very unique, a modular solution to that marketplace, and their benefit corporation and they work in homeless communities. They work in workforce housing or what have you. We’re working with another group that is figuring out a new type of packaging in the organic cosmetics markets that is paper based, replaces plastic, and that it biodegrades within two week’s time. You just throw it out, throw it out in your garden and it’s going to be gone in two week’s time. So there’s some incredible spread of businesses that are trying to address real-world problems with a market-based solution.
20:02 (Cory) — Hey y’all, Cory here. Once more. Moving on in our chat, Russ is going to share some wonderful gems for those of you who are curious about what makes a successful social entrepreneur and a successful social business. Russ has been in the social business space himself for now 27 years. He’s worked with countless social businesses through his agency. He’s written an excellent book called Rise Up where he discusses social entrepreneurship. And the trends surrounding it. And now he’s positioning himself as an investor. So to say the least, I’d say he is well worth listening to here. Listen in.
20:48 (Cory) — So that kind of transitions well to I think chatting a little bit about the book that you published recently, called Rise Up: How to Build a Socially Responsible Business. And I’m kind of curious, based off of all these experiences with these different businesses, are there any kind of like overlying thematic commonalities or common principals that you feel like these businesses and these business owners share?
21:10 (Russ) — Oh yeah. You know, the first off is that they’re all business people, right? Which is sometimes people are a little bit flummoxed by that because they think if you’re social entrepreneur, you’re a do-gooder, it’s kind of akin to perhaps a nonprofit approach or what have you. And it is a relative, probably a distant relative of that. But everybody I work with, they’re all business people and they really, really use business to change the world in positive ways. So that’s the number one thing is that they are business people.
The second part of that is that the workplaces that these social entrepreneurs create are workplaces that are very healthful, productive, and really motivating to human beings. I believe so they focus on the quality of the work environment.
Then the last one is they all have big hearts. They’re thinking outside themselves, things that they could hold on to, they give up, they’re open, welcoming, accessible. I can say that almost to a woman or person as far as people here at Canada or what have you, I’ve never met a social entrepreneur that I can’t call up, get ahold of, and ask or offer a favor too and it won’t be received very quickly and openly.
22:34 (Cory) — That is a really special quality. Then as well, I’m kind of curious along the lines and I feel like I could most certainly direct folks to your book, which was an excellent one that I enjoyed. What do you feel like are some common points that these businesses or business owners share that makes their social enterprise successful?
22:54 (Russ) — Goes back to that business standpoint as being tightly positioned in your marketplace. It’s creating a product or a service that adds value and can compete in the marketplace. It’s looking at your performance in ways that’s going to make you financially healthy, while at the very same time you’re creating a profit in the community and for the environment as well, which takes a very sharp business person to do because you’re adding on new layers of complexity in your business that say a traditional business that isn’t a oriented in the same way has to consider. But I think it also makes you more fit for the future and a higher performing business. And I think it’s also the type of a company that society is going to be demanding in the coming years. So you’re also a step ahead of the game.
23:49 (Cory) —And do you feel like there’s any of those particular elements that you’ve embodied or developed here with Oliver Russell? Because I mean, being in business for 27 years is a significant amount of time.
24:00 Well we’re known as a very, very giving company. And I think once upon a time, you wouldn’t find many companies that were known as giving companies. And I think that fosters a reputation in the community. I think it makes it easier to hire people than other businesses. I think it also creates an environment here where people are apt to stay longer because they feel good about working in a place that gives back. So I’d say that’s probably the primary hallmark.
24:31 (Cory) — And I noticed as I was browsing your Twitter profile this morning. You tweeted out an article that you wrote for Forbes, the agency council there, and you mentioned one of the first things that, that caught me was right. How you started it. You know, you start your day at 4:00 AM and you talk about this list of different things that you’re involved in, all the projects that you’re contributing to. I’m kind of curious if you could share a bit more about given all these, these things that you’re involved in and you know, for one, the traveling that you do, how do you manage yourself to make sure you’re focusing on what’s important and what’s going to move your organizations and partnerships forward?
25:06 (Russ) — Constant challenge, focus. Some days I’m good at it, other days I’m not. I kind of operate with the universe in mind. Oftentimes it creates opportunities that come up very opportunistically and I will jump into those not unlike creating Oliver Russell. So I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m the best at managing my own time. I feel a sense of urgency to accomplish a lot and hopefully be an initiator or co-collaborator where I can and leverage other people’s efforts in the world. You know, a co-founder of a benefit corporation here in town. Is, is funny, a couple of weeks ago, we’re both in the bathroom together, standing at the urinals and he said, “Russ, how in the hell do you get everything done that you tackle.” I said not very well. So you know, I’m not regimented in many ways. I mean, I get up at 4, I go to hard until nine some days I’m, as I said, focused and other days I’m kind of scattered. I’ll take action over just thoughtful planning any day. And that’s what I’m built for.
26:21 (Cory) — So you mentioned that sense of urgency. What does that sense of urgency focused at at the moment and in the incoming year?
26:29 (Russ) — Oh Wow. One of the things that’s focused on is a new consulting firm that I’ve started with a businessman over in Germany called a Humanista, that’s to help leaders integrate social purpose into the core of their companies. So we’ll do that through educational workshops, through a strategy and consulting, and then we also have a collective action programs where we create social labs is what we call them, that bring people together to do a powerful thing. So one of those is called Plastic Works and what we actually did—Humanista and Oliver Russell—is we built a little prototype plastic recycling plant here in Boise, Idaho to bring a community together to solve the plastics issues. So it’s one of those things like we decided, hey, guess what? There’s a company in Denmark, Precious Plastics, that has open source plans to make a little facility like this.
27:28 So we got those. We quickly built a shredder and injection molder and some other equipment. Now we’re going through the process of figuring out what sort of products we want to make and we’re getting the community involved in a big way from the material science department at Boise State to the city of Boise to the local ski area contacted us and we got together with them and said, what if we could take your plastic refuse and turn it into your season passes next year when that be cool. So, we have that, that whole thing going on. Another area we’re focusing on is a gender equality in a pretty big way. We are a finalist for the United Nations Global Sustainable Development Goals for our work around SDG number five, which is a gender equality. So those are some areas that we focus on as opposed to me being a scattershot.
28:24 But I think we’re at a point where we’re starting, we’ve got a lot of momentum, we got a lot of contacts, we have some influence, and we’re using that to create some very interesting social impact. And I know I’d also talked about taking equity positions in a startup social enterprises, which is very helpful. So one of those is a brewery, craft brewery that’s going to become a certified B corporation. You know, there’s a company called GoodWell, which is certification platform for an a public benefit corporation. It’s a certification platform that tries to make offices and workplaces more healthy for people. And then the last one is company called Our Planet Soap Company, which uses, no palm oil is all natural and they benefit endangered species. 10% of every sale that goes to that. So we’re working with some really smart people. We’re providing a lot of resources and insight. And that last one, the soap company just got covered a little bit yesterday in National Geographic and an article about palm oil.
29:27 (Cory) — And I mean, this is again kind of reiterating the list of projects. I think there’s a few in there that I wasn’t able to come up with in my research looking into everything you’re involved in. So it has me curious again, like what particularly is your kind of role or your strengths and contributing to each of these
29:43 (Russ) — Coming up with the ideas, green lighting, them working with a network of collaborators and the connections that we have, and then I really bring a lot of a branding and marketing chops to the a party.
And some of it’s just to inspire people, right? And the things I spend–I probably spend 25% of my time doing things like this podcast or just having one on ones as a mentor with people who are looking to make their way in the world through social enterprise. So that’s the other thing that I’m trying to spend a lot of time with, none of that, of course, is billable and none of that generates revenue. But it’s one of those things if you’re put on the planet to help others, man, then that’s what you do.
30:33 (Cory) — Before we wrap up Russ, I do you have one last question for you? Kind of along those lines, I guess I’m curious in your evolution as a social entrepreneur, what perhaps have been some kind of recent learnings that you’ve extracted about yourself as a social entrepreneur and in how you’re making your way through year journey.
30:51 (Russ) — Oh, I touched on this before. I’m not very good at planning. I am pretty good at being persistent and I think what I need to do is just keep jumping into different opportunities and trusting my gut and recognizing some of those will not work out, and hopefully having enough of a financial base that you can weather the storm through those mistakes and failures to actually go on and create more good and hopefully on an international platform.
31:23 (Cory) — Excellent. Before we close here, Russ. Is there anywhere else that you’d like to direct people to, to keep up with you, Oliver Russell, and all those projects that you listed.
31:31 (Russ) — Oh yeah, yeah. We’re a, of course we’ve got a website, OliverRussell.com, but you can find Oliver Russell or me on social media, Linkedin, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, blah, blah, blah. You know, that article you referenced earlier today,Cory, for Forbes Agency Council, that was me writing about why CEOs should invest more of their time on social media. I’m there a lot works for the business and it also helps spread the of world of social enterprise.
32:00 (Cory) — Excellent. And all those profiles everywhere to find rest will be linked up in our show notes growensemble.com. Thanks a lot for your time, Russ.
32:07 (Russ) — Hey, thanks man.
32:09 (Cory) — Hey y’all. That’s a wrap. I really hope you enjoyed this episode of the Grow Ensemble Podcast in. As a reminder, if you are a fan of the podcast, please let us know. Hitting subscribe and leaving a review in iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts greatly influences other folks find. In our show as well.Don’t forget, we have full show notes over at growensemble.com where I’d also advise you sign up for our newsletter. There you will be able to keep up with new releases, giveaways that we launch in any events we host. Thanks again for listening in.