“I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

Written by

Niels Alzen Executive Creative Director, Europe | Barbara Lienhard |

Oct 20, 2021 · 11-minute read

This interview was originally published in German for ADC Switzerland:. To read the original, please click here.

What’s the point of finding one’s purpose? According to Niels Alzen, we need timely answers to survive in the digitized world. In our interview, the Executive Creative Director at BrightHouse also reveals the role that purpose played in the first ascent of the Himalaya.

Please explain to us what you mean by purpose.
We often describe purpose as an “inner drive.” It answers the question: Why do I get up every morning and go to work? Is it my salary, the company car, or the free cappuccino at the office? Or is there something bigger that energizes me and everyone else in the organization? If so, what does that mean for my work ethic and motivation? Purpose gets to the heart of what should drive every employee, and the company as a whole. It’s a deeply embedded idea that gives every action a meaningful direction.

Why is purpose important for a company?
If a company wants to be successful, it needs the best employees around. At the same time, we’re seeing a shortage of qualified, skilled workers across many industries. In this competitive situation, companies stand a much better chance of attracting top talent if they can provide a clear purpose. This is especially important for the younger generations of professionals. After all, we dedicate the premium slice of our day to our work. Why would we do that without inner conviction?

Why is purpose important for the entrepreneurial aspect of a company?
The way we work is currently undergoing a radical upheaval. We’re working from home, across geographies, and in an increasingly self-determined way. Companies that want to remain successful must adapt their culture to these new conditions. Management no longer works through command and control alone. Employees have to take on more personal responsibility and show self-initiative. This raises many questions: How can we shorten decision-making paths, enable top performers, and establish a constructive culture that allows for mistakes? A clearly defined raison d’être provides orientation in answering these questions. At the same time, shareholders and clients increasingly expect companies to play a positive role in society. Thus, a consistently lived purpose ensures higher stock prices and profits, while it inspires individuals to think beyond themselves.

Can a positive purpose be defined for every company?
Anyone who starts a company has a good reason to do so. Our work consists of archeology to uncover that reason, and architecture. First, we ask the right questions to get down to the roots of the company. What initially motivated the founders? What did they have in mind? The answers to these questions form the foundation on which we construct a complex building. We formulate a target culture, new principles for action that are derived from that, and of course the purpose, which stands above it all as the guiding star. Purpose exists at the intersection of two questions: “What are the company’s significant strengths?” and “What are the needs of the world and society, today and in the future?”

Keyword “credibility”: How would you approach the search for purpose in a major bank that loudly touts “sustainability” but at the same time consults oil companies on their IPO?
Well, an important aspect of our work involves an honest analysis of the current state of a company’s purpose orientation. How strongly has the company internalized what it wants to be? Is it just talk, or is there also consistent action? We have instruments such as internal surveys that help us find out. In addition, a purpose should be somewhat uncomfortable and ambitious. Even more—it should trigger a transformation. It should be achievable, but not without leaving your comfort zone. Sometimes, this can mean a reassessment of one’s own business practices. Cases like these are what make our work exciting. We don’t need to define a purpose for Greenpeace.

You say that a purpose should trigger a transformation. Can you name a company that has succeeded in doing that?
There are countless examples of how purpose has enabled a company to change its culture. But if you want to hear a notable one, the US drugstore chain CVS defined its purpose as “Helping people on their path to better health.” As a result, CVS decided to stop selling tobacco products—which on the one hand meant a short-term loss of around $2 billion a year. But on the other hand, it yielded the long-term benefit that people were happier to work and shop at a company like that.

What about Nike and “Just do it”?
“Just do it” is simply its marketing claim. Nike’s purpose is: “If you have a body, you’re an athlete.” In other words, there’s a clear inner conviction that has a formative effect on the culture of the organization and, ultimately, on the products it manufactures. The Washington Post is another good example. Since Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the daily newspaper’s website has displayed the slogan: “Democracy dies in darkness.” That’s not a claim developed by an advertising agency—it came from a staff member and had been circulating as a quote in the editorial office for some time. It expresses the self-image of The Washington Post—its raison d’être. Formulated like a law of nature, it asserts that journalists bring light into the darkness in order to save democracy. This is the urgency with which they practice their profession. Because all Post employees have internalized it, the sentence also serves as a unified message to the outside world. The most successful companies in the world get their drive from that kind of conviction and are therefore able to mobilize people.

Do you encounter much resistance in your work? People tend to be inert by nature and don’t like change.
It’s true that change is something that unsettles people at first and then triggers resistance—unless the rethinking serves a higher purpose that everyone can see and identify with. Basically, it’s about giving work a new context in which people feel more empowered to actively participate and help shape the big picture. Only then will a real movement arise.

When does a purpose strategy not work?
Simply putting a motto on the wall won’t set anything in motion. Purpose is the ideal rocket fuel for cultural change, but then you must launch the rocket. The formula is: 20 percent talk, 80 percent action. Change processes of this kind are complex and are comprised of different measures that can’t just be mandated from above. The management must lead by example and at the same time create a grassroots movement. That’s the only way to create a self-learning and evolving organization.

What is the difference between a purpose and a vision?
The basic structure of a corporate strategy usually consists of four elements: mission, vision, strategy, and purpose. I’ll explain how they work together by the example of mountaineering. A mountaineer’s mission is what he does every day to climb the mountain. His vision is: I want to have climbed Mount Everest by 2024. His strategy is: How do I do that? What sort of equipment will I need? What training? And then there’s his purpose: Why am I a mountaineer in the first place? What does it contribute to the world and to me personally? Sir Edmund Hillary put it this way: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”

Is one’s purpose something innate? Is it in our genes whether we become doctors, sneaker manufacturers, or extreme mountaineers?
Those who put in the effort to build a company usually have a strong awareness of why. But this inner drive can be weakened over time by external pressure, or even forgotten altogether. We help our clients bring it back to life.

How can employees who are only small cogs in a big wheel, who earn little, and don’t have a large office find their purpose?
There’s a nice anecdote about that. In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy visited NASA. In the hallway, he met a janitor and asked him what exactly he did at NASA. His answer: “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” NASA had succeeded in making every employee, right down to the janitor, feel pride in their work. And that’s what purpose is all about. No job is so small that it’s not relevant to the overall success of the organization. That’s why inspired employees are more than twice as productive as those who are only satisfied.

How has the pandemic affected the demand for purpose? Are more companies taking a closer look at their model?
I’ve been working at BCG BrightHouse for two and a half years now, and the relevance of purpose has steadily increased. Even without the pandemic, we’re in an age of great change. Structures are becoming more agile, traditional hierarchies are being replaced. Team leaders in Silicon Valley are no longer involved much in day-to-day decisions. Instead, they manage processes by defining goals, putting together the right teams for them, and then letting those teams work autonomously. That’s the only way that modern companies can keep up with the speed of business today.

The pandemic was a catalyst for a remote culture. Has that impacted your work?
In fact, it has become even more important. Working from home will not simply disappear again. Now more than ever, companies need intrinsically motivated employees who give their best, even when they are not under constant supervision. Purpose also plays a central role here, as a connecting, shared awareness—especially when everyone is geographically separated. It promotes an understanding in which everyone acts in a self-determined way. Purpose defines and increases the motivation of each person in the company.

Why did you decide to leave advertising to advise companies on how to find their purpose?
Even though my work has a different focus now, I still truly appreciate well-done advertising and enjoy my work as a judge every year. When I first started about 20 years ago, I wanted everything to be as anarchist and edgy as possible. But over time, I developed a greater interest in campaigns that conveyed a bigger idea. A few years back, while working on Opel, I created “U-Turn in your head.” We wanted to turn the brand image around 180 degrees and managed to do that with a campaign on the topic of prejudice. I realized the power that communication can unleash not just externally, but inside organizations as well, if it credibly engages an issue that’s bigger than the brand itself.

But Opel still hasn’t managed to catch up with the premium brands.
“U-Turn in your head” was demonstrably a highly successful advertising campaign. Opel was better than its reputation back then, and we showed that. But it wasn’t a purpose exercise, which has a completely different task: to significantly change the company.” For example, this claim could also have meant focusing fully on e-mobility for everyone. In a company, you can only bring about change where you tackle it. With the toolkit that I developed in advertising, I now turn completely different screws and achieve different results.

There is a growing trend of management consultancies buying advertising agencies. What advantages and disadvantages do you see for an advertising agency that suddenly becomes part of a management consultancy, and what advantages does the management consultancy expect from acquiring an agency?
I can describe concretely what changed for me when I switched from the advertising industry to a management consultancy. On the one hand, as a BCG subsidiary, we have a direct line to top management and can therefore initiate holistic change. On the other hand, my work has also become more complex. In advertising, a lot has to follow the “KISS” principle: “Keep it simply stupid.” Management consultancies, on the other hand, specialize in navigating complexity without making things more complicated. If you have this ability, you can tackle the greatest of issues.

Niels Alzen, ECD, BCG BrightHouse

Niels Alzen works as Executive Creative Director at BCG BrightHouse, a subsidiary of Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and was previously a creative director at some of Germany’s most renowned advertising agencies.

Read More


"*" indicates required fields


Tell us how we can partner together.