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Since beginning my career at Spektrix in June of 2021 as a remote worker out of our NYC office, various Covid restrictions have prevented me from spending much time with anyone at Spektrix, let alone the UK based team with whom I spend most of my working days. These limits have stopped most of us from being person to person with users and partners, as well. I was thrilled to recently spend a week in London and Birmingham with my team and many other members of the Spektrix community. This included an hour with Michael Smith, founder of Cog Design, to discuss his company’s recent B Corp certification. To our knowledge, Cog is the first Spektrix partner to embark on the B Corp journey and we were interested to know what the experience was like from a small business perspective.
In speaking with Michael, it became clear that Michael is a curious and dedicated leader who genuinely cares about the well-being of his team. Where many founders of successful businesses would say “I am responsible for XYZ,” when asked about his role, Michael set the stage with “I'm a gap filler, I think. I'm the founder and if we need a figurehead, I'll be the figurehead. On a day to day basis, I'm mostly the one going ‘are you all right? You okay?’”
Below are some highlights of our conversation. Three areas of conversation presented themselves: The B Corp Certification Process, Sustainability in Tech, and Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging.
When Cog went through the Impact Assessment process, is the people area where you found your strengths were lying, or where was Cog strongest?
Yeah, we were pretty even across the whole thing, really. But the people area, I think it is quite tricky for us because we're quite a small team. So there's, maybe, eleven people on the payroll. And another five or six I would call full-time team members who are freelance, most overseas. Any one person skews the numbers really drastically. I think it's interesting to come in from a small business perspective.
And did you have other small business partners or people you've worked with in the past that you knew had gone through the process that inspired you to do that?
Our friends at a design agency called William Joseph, I'm friends with the directors and they had gone through it and have very similar values to us and I'd seen that Spektrix had gone through it which impressed us. And one of our clients has been through it, they're a bigger, environmental engineering firm. I think that's kind of how we've heard about B Corporations; it was in the air. Similar types of organisations seem to be talking about it. And then we were going through quite a lot of the individual processes, talking about sustainability quite a lot. We were talking about sustainability, and ethics, and equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging. We were having all those kinds of different conversations individually. We thought, "well, we could bring them all together."
How did the B Corporation Certification come to your attention? Or an alignment group? Or within the eleven people who are in the Cog studio?
I think it's probably osmosis really. A few years ago we were working with a company called Junxion and they were lovely and they talked about being a B Corp. They were so excited about the prospect of it. That’s probably how we first heard the term. Actually, their zeal probably put us off a little; I think we are naturally quite skeptical of quick fixes and adding badges to things. We’ve always shied away from attributions like ISO or Investors in People and the like. More recently we revisited the idea because we’d seen a take up in the UK, including your own journey at Spektrix and your B Corp status. How did that happen?
It's my understanding that it came to Michael Nabarro's attention through our sector strategy lead, Liv Nilssen. But as soon as Michael had that conversation with Liv he was like, "oh, this is a no brainer." because this is in line with the way we've been doing business for a while. We have this opportunity to connect with other people and other tech companies, which is a growing sector for B Corps. We can see from our impact score areas that we can improve and see little places that make a big impact over time.
We had a good score initially because we've always been people focused and user focussed, but are able to look at network peers and other big corporations and say, "oh, that's something that we could do, too." With travel or conferences. we're not going to send everybody all the time. We can partner with a B Corp supplier and that's going to make a big difference for our merchandise who we're partnering with to create swag, everybody who goes to a conference gets a bag of swag and they throw it in the garbage. Making that conscious choice to say, "okay, we're going to focus on this conversation instead of this print piece that somebody's not going to look at."
Yeah, but people love Spektrix swag. People love those notebooks.
We had the network and the directory of B Corps. I was like, "okay, let's look at promotional partners as an opportunity. There are four companies that we could work with who have a B Corp status, who have eco products, we want to do "Made in the UK" and focus on that. We found a great partner and we feel confident about that and good about where those products are coming from.
Yeah, I suppose that's what's really nice about B Corp status is it's such a shortcut to so many things. It's real and properly accredited.
Having gone through the assessment, we want to keep moving forward, we don't want to find that in three years' time that we've somehow screwed it up and move backwards or don't recertify.
What I found great about the assessment was it really made you think about what you're doing already and then how you can move it towards being better. There are some things that I suppose we kind of thought we were doing but didn't really think about. One of the areas in particular was our clients. They do outreach work, they do education work, and they do learning and participation work. It made us look into all of our clients, actually. They're doing really important work with isolated communities in the countryside, or they are doing really important work with refugees. They're doing really important work with people who have English as a second language and are therefore isolated within cities or older communities. And there's incredible work going on in the cultural sector in the UK. And a lot of that is quite hidden because that's not the headline stuff. A lot of that communication is to funders, I'm sure, partners, but it's not the kind of big public stuff. I think B Corp does a good job of emphasizing the fact that the whole point is that you are helping your clients to make a profit so they can then do those things, rather than profit being a dirty word. I think that's really important.
When you talk about sustainability in a tech business and a tech company, what kind of conversations were you all having? We know that in big manufacturing there are lots of things that can be done to change your footprint, but from a smaller business that's tech focused, what does that conversation look like for you all?
There's a lot going on, how we talk about ourselves as a company and as a group of individuals, as a team, and what our footprint is. And then there's how we do our work. How we do our work is complex because almost all of our work now is websites. So it was much easier when we were doing print. You could say “buy this kind of print.”
But websites are trickier. So we worked with a company called Every City, who only worked with renewable energy. They were bought by a company called Krystal. We were very worried at that point. But actually what's happened is Krystal, who are based in London, and are even more environmentally focused.
Right. It's just good business.
Which is kind of what B Corp is about, aligning good business with good business practices. So Krystal had a very firm set of sustainability goals. One is 100% renewable energy for all of their hosting. Two is minimum waste for hardware, so they recycle their hardware and reconstitute their hardware. And three is in the air conditioning, because that's one of the real killers in hosting. They're in London, so it's not as hot as if you're in Arizona. But they go for very strict standards of air conditioning, how much energy they are using, all that stuff. So all those things combined makes a big impact.
We’re not big fans of carbon-offsetting as a concept, as we don’t think you can buy your way out of the pollution, we’d much rather just use less in the first place. But Krystal are also doing a billion tree pledge, planting a billion trees by 2030. They're using less energy to start with and they're doing the offsetting. That works well for us. So that's hosting.
And then actually, in terms of the websites, we're going through quite a process of reengineering the way websites are built and how we serve data and where we put image files versus where the actual data for the website is and how we're serving all that sort of stuff. So that's a constant journey, because that's constantly evolving. The other thing we do is work really hard to help our clients understand why it's important to compress images before they upload them.
Beyond just site speed?
Yeah, we will do all of the kind of on the fly compression ourselves so that's all done automatically but my rule is that there is absolutely no reason why an image on our website should be uploaded at more than 1 MB. Even a 4,000 pixel image can be made into a JPEG that's 600K. But clients, they're busy and they have a high turnover of staff and they just are used to just picking up the phone, taking a photo and then just uploading it and it's 20MB. If you multiply that over a website which will have 500 pictures on it then that's a lot of data that you're just moving for no reason whatsoever. Then what's happening on the website is you're then converting that and serving it and making it into lots of different sized pictures but there's still a process that has to happen. So we work really hard with clients so they understand how to compress, give them guides on their website.
Could you say a bit more about the image compression bit, that might be useful to your prospects or clients and Spektrix users? I understand why it's important for me to improve the speed of my website. What's the benefit of compressing images? What are those processes like? And what are we doing to reduce our footprint by going through these extra processes?
So if you imagine it's all energy, you're using energy to transfer one thing to another place. That's what we talk about when we're talking about sustainability. So if you imagine that you start at the bottom of a hill and if you're carrying 10 pound bags of shopping, that's not too bad. Getting to the top of the hill is relatively easy because that's not a huge amount of weight. If you multiply that by 50, then that is an enormous amount of weight and the energy it takes for you to get that to the top of the hill is exponentially more. And that's what's happening with data. So if you've got a 500K file and you move it from one place to another the energy that it takes to do that is relatively small. But if you've got a 50MB file and you move it from one place to another, when you do that it's huge. And then you've got to store that. Then each time someone goes to that database where that image is and they want to retrieve anything, it has to go through all of those images. Is this the right image? Is this the right image? And it's doing that with a 50MB file each time. It's just math. So from an environmental perspective, from a sustainability perspective, you're using so much more energy each time you want to do something. It also costs much more because storage is relatively expensive by the time you get into those kind of big numbers and it makes everything slower. Why wouldn't you do it?
Right. And I don't think people usually think about those kinds of tech processes and the things that they can't physically see.
I've written an article in our Journal about how the big tech companies do their compression. If you take WhatsApp, or Instagram is a really good example, you can upload a 30 megabyte file to Instagram. The file that actually ends up being served on Instagram. It's like 100K. So the power of that compression algorithm that's going on in the background there is huge. They're doing that for a reason. They're not doing that for fun. They're doing that because it makes the business more productive. But sustainably, that's the thing to do.
I don't think people really consider these things when they're talking about sustainable practices in business. They say "but I don't do anything in print."
When you are looking at your Impact Assessment and seeing opportunities for growth, do you and your team have in mind that there are areas you want to see that you're pushing harder to improve as you go?
Yeah. Specifically, we are on a journey with equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging, that's an area that we're really focusing on at the moment. The senior members of the team are working on an Arts Marketing Association course at the moment, which is a year long course in that area. And that has made us reassess how we're doing job ads, our whole recruitment process, and just making sure that we're thinking about that properly from all sorts of different angles. I think we've already made a lot of progress in the process.
And when you think about business in the tech sector, like in partnership with Spektrix, are there ways that you envision our business being able to create pathways for other tech companies to come on board? What do you find yourself saying about your B Corp status?
Yeah, it's interesting. There's lots to unpack from your question. So to start with, we have never traditionally thought of ourselves as a tech company. I see us as a human centred company. People are what we're about and the tech supports that. That's probably because I've been doing it for 30 years and when I started, I designed leaflets and posters and T-shirts and now we're designing websites. And to me, that's a continuum. That's just communication. We're a communications company that works in design.
Now 95-98% of our work is websites and so suddenly we become a tech company. But that's been a journey. I didn't wake up thinking "well, I'll run a tech company."
The way people communicate has changed. Can you talk a bit more about communication in this area?
We have had our certification for a month, which we're very excited about. So we're telling everyone we possibly can. We are definitely talking to partners about it. We are talking to clients and explaining to clients why it's important and explain to clients what the process is behind it, not necessarily the end goal.
When you talk about it with clients, was there an awareness of what the B Corp movement is? Has there been any, "that's incredible work. We have to pass this on to somebody else!" in the short time since your announcement?
I think B Corp is relatively new in the UK, so the people who've heard of it are excited, maybe surprised that the company of our size and scope was able to get to that status the first time around. And even people who've been through the process are quite surprised by that.
I think it's one in five that actually gets certified on their first attempt. The average score is 50.
I suppose the feedback we've had has either been overwhelmingly positive and excited about this or blank faces, very little in the middle. And we see it as our job to explain to the people with the blank faces why it's a good thing. And I include our team in that as well. They've been part of the process of getting there, but they've not really been as embedded as much. So we do breakfast briefings once a month and in the gaps between those breakfast briefings, we do internal sessions on the different aspects of the B Corp journey.
Oh, that's great. Do you rotate who's leading those conversations?
Yeah. In the kind of intersection between the equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging area of work we're doing, each of us has different areas of responsibility there, and so we'll each lead a session on those.
Is anybody in your team saying "this is what I'm super passionate about." Is anyone showing up in a leadership way in community outreach or sustainability practice or justice work? Is that bringing a different type of authenticity to the individuals who show up to work at Cog in a different way, or is it kind of solidifying the humanity of the people who work with you every day?
What a good question. I think if you would try and define what Cog was about, then the people and the ethos of the people that work there is already hugely important. And actually that aligns very closely to what B Corp is about. I think what we are seeing is a lot more kind of solidifying of having a language to describe the things that we believe in as a collective of people. Yes, I think we are seeing people stepping up into having areas of responsibility, and those areas of responsibility tend to align with their job roles. So the head of tech is very much interested in sustainability tech, and the head of design is very much interested in the humanity of how we are talking to clients, communicating in those kinds of areas. I suppose I have a kind of overarching view of how all the different bits fit together. I suppose what it's made us do is step up across the board and everyone is paying more attention, having a language to describe it.
You keep talking about equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging. Putting belonging into your vernacular as a leader, was that something that came out of a specific point or intention or just kind of evolved over time? Saying this is a culture of inclusion that we want to really build?
So the “belonging” specifically came from the course we're doing with the Arts Marketing Association, which I found really interesting. And that's perhaps the aspect I've most picked up in that course is the sense of people feeling seen and being part of the culture. We've worked really hard on areas like induction for new people, just making sure that we change the induction process depending on who that person is and what their experience is and what their background is, and that we are mindful of that journey. It's been a learning process for me.
I come from a position of privilege. I am a white, cis-gendered man of, now, some affluence, living in a Western democracy, with everything I want, really. That's quite tricky to get your head around on the global scale.
From a different perspective, within the arts. I come from quite a working class background. I didn't go to University, don't have a degree. In the arts world it is incredibly unusual to come across somebody who doesn't have a degree and doesn't have the privilege of that platform and the self confidence and support network that comes with that.
We had a breakfast briefing with Dr. Dave O'Brien, who works at University of Edinburgh. His academic research is around class, specifically in the arts. He's co-written a book called Culture Is Bad for You which is great. Part of his thesis is about how in the arts sector, successful working class people often create an origin story, they talk about graft and dedication and about the working class roots of grandparents. They often miss out their own privilege or the fact that their parents were successful and provided the stability, opportunities and encouragement that allowed them to thrive, allowed the lucky breaks to happen, gave them the platform from which hard work was rewarded with success, It’s important that we all remember that stuff, that we aren’t delusional about the circumstances that opened the doors for us. If we do that then we can remember to leave them ajar for the next generation. And of course class is just one of many privileges where that happens.
I've been on a similar journey and it’s rare to find somebody else who doesn't have the formal education. I'm from a working class background, single mom in a more rural setting, and you don't find a lot of that kind of background in the arts. I personally struggled with my own privilege but having this background. "But I had to work my butt off. What are you talking about 'my privilege'? Oh, wait, I woke up and the color of my skin is not one of my problems." So, reckoning with that and how we can, instead of pulling up that drawbridge, put it back down and help people across. So I appreciate you sharing that with me as well.
You had mentioned focusing EDI in hiring, have you been strategizing your recruitment process to be inclusive and filling specific gaps. As a company have you said “this is how we're going to do it. That's the same for everyone.” Or what does that look like for Cog?
We’ve been exploring different specific processes. We are trying really hard to do CV-less recruitment. It's difficult because everyone is so ingrained in sending you a CV that people just do it automatically. So I have to write back and say "what I really want is to talk or write about this specific area." That is quite time consuming. We have done this for the last couple of rounds of recruitment and we have a full process of looking at all the applications properly at the same time. We have different people look at the applications. I suppose the biggest thing, and actually the biggest revelation to me, was sending questions in advance of an interview. And that had never occurred to me. I don't understand why everyone doesn't just do that. It just seems like such a sensible thing to do. I'm not employing people who are great at interviews. I'm employing people who are great at doing the work or who will grow into being great at doing the work with the right advice and help and support. That's been a real kind of revelation.
It changes everything. I've only been with Spektrix for nine months, so I was one of the first who went through the really strategized, equal playing field kind of hiring process. I was amazed that I started my interview process with two people who would be junior to me in whatever role I was applying for. Everybody has the same questions. If I'm an extroverted person coming into a room full of other extroverted people who are artistic, it turns into an interview that's really more about “would I want to hang out with you after work?” That has nothing to do with the job. And I think we've all been through that for decades. It's just the "in club."
And I think that's somehow particularly true of the cultural sector. And I don't know why that is. Maybe that comes from, I suppose, the tradition of being underfunded and having to make do with the resources you have available. I think it's hugely important that everyone gets on, but I think it's important that everyone respects each other and get on as a team of people. It doesn't mean we have to be in each other's pockets. It doesn't mean we have to be down the pub every night. But I also think that in order to work at Cog, you have to really care about the cultural sector or else there is no point working with us. I've learnt that over the years, because I've seen people who have no interest in the cultural sector hang around for about nine months, realise and then leave. That's tricky because isn’t that, in itself, excluding?
I think Spektrix has a similar kind of, we're a tech company that works in the arts sector. And sure, it's great to have an appreciation and a knowledge of arts and culture, but you don't need it to work here, because what does an engineer need to know about the arts necessarily to create software? I have somebody on my marketing team who has no arts background. And is it a problem that she can look at a client image and not know that that's probably from a production of 'Fences'? No, she doesn't need to know that. That's how I think we solidify arts moving forward is bringing people in who don't have a background and exposing them and saying “this is why it's important” and building that. We believe culture and arts help our communities be happy and healthy.
My background is absolutely not in the arts. So if you'd asked me when I was 21, “are you interested in theatre?” Absolutely not. No interest in theatre whatsoever. “Are you interested in opera?” No, I'm not interested in opera. “Are you interested in contemporary dance?” Absolutely no way, no how. But now I'm voracious in taking in all of those several times a week, going to stuff because I love it. But I've only gotten there because of being exposed to it in interesting ways. But what I did have at the start was a love of live entertainment. That live entertainment was thrashy guitar, indie music. I happened to be around at the time of grunge.
It's the same experience, though. It's collective joy. It's sharing.
But I would never have thought of that as art. So if someone said to me, do you want to work in the arts, I’d have said, "Absolutely not. No interest in that whatsoever." “Do you want to work in music clubs?” Absolutely. Very much. It's a language more than anything else. It's an understanding that people have a different perspective and being able to show people that world.
B Corp talks about a JEDI perspective: justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. And I think for so long white, wealthy, men have dictated what art is because they have held the purse strings. They're the ones providing funding which then identifies what kind of art is produced and essentially defining what art is, and funding one type of art as opposed to, like, street art or hip hop. Like what you said, not thinking of the grunge scene as an art scene. But that's not what philanthropy was saying is worthy.
No, because our perceptions of what worthy art is were defined by a group of white men at the end of the 19th century and early 20th Century, in clubs in London. A group of 20 or 30 people decided “that's what I like so that is what is real art and that over there is not art and not worth funding.” Those people were the benchmark of inspiration for the people that put together the UK’s arts funding model and that generation then taught or inspired the people that now run the major art centers and galleries, or maybe the people that did until very recently. The landscape is shifting.
There’s a great book on the topic, The Intellectuals and the Masses by John Caery.
But don’t get me started on the ways that a love of literature is used to differentiate the well regarded and less worthy in society, we may need another hour to unpack that as a topic.
Michael Smith is a designer by training and started Cog Design in 1991. He has managed the company’s constant evolution ever since. Michael is a frequent commentator on design, empathy and sustainability, in the press and as a guest lecturer. He is also a regular mentor with underrepresented students at University of Greenwich and University of the Arts London. Michael is a Fellow of the RSA, was Executive Chair with the National Campaign for the Arts, and is currently a Trustee with the kindness charity, People United. He lives in the Kent countryside with his partner, their sons, dog and chickens.
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