‘The great and good’ is a phrase often used when it comes to talking about key civic and business figures. But what about those in the Sheffield City Region working for the greater good?
Jill Theobald spoke to several businesspeople behind ethical businesses and projects about their decision to ‘do the right thing’ starting with cover star Johnny Pawlik, MD of Mantra Media
“If you’re making money, you can also make a difference.”
When planning a feature on ethical businesses, that phrase from a previous company culture feature in unLTD really struck me as a great ‘mantra’.
Fortunately, it was a comment by Johnny Pawlik whose company, Mantra Media, I had been profiling at the time for issue 6 of the mag.
So, it made perfect sense to interview him once again for a cover story on doing business ethically, especially given Mantra Media’s strapline is ‘Driven by ethics, guided by knowledge’.
Those ethics are deep-rooted and stem from his own humble beginnings – and a growing awareness of inequality and injustice.
“I had two upbringings, really,” he explains. “First I grew up on a troubled council estate in the Midlands. My parents were teenagers when they had me and had married in secret because, despite both being first or second-generation immigrants, had both been ostracized by their families by getting together and they had nothing.
“They worked crazy hard, crazy hours and growing up I saw a lot of injustice. At my first school, my father wanted me to go there because it was a Catholic school, but I was from a council estate. I was put into separate classes with children with severe learning difficulties and had to ask my mum why that was happening and fight to be moved into mainstream classes.
“This was the classism of the 80s – I was being treated differently because of my class and was one of only two kids at school with a foreign surname. But my mum always instilled in me ‘you have a voice’ and that was important, I never forgot that. Things like class and background should not affect that.
“My father started working for the RAF and was away a lot, but it meant we moved out and into a more middle-class area. I didn’t have to keep my head down to watch for syringes on the pavement or because I had a haircut that might get me into a fight and I was treated very differently at upper school because my parents were then considered to have ‘done well’ for themselves. That level of injustice just didn’t make sense to me.”
Fast forward to the mid-90s and Johnny had a life-changing moment – “I picked up a computer. It was fascinating to me that I could communicate with people and share knowledge and learning all over the world. It felt like a democratisation of knowledge. And I felt if I could communicate effectively, I could address some of those issues of inequality. Perhaps equality and opportunity could be achieved through the internet.”
By the mid noughties, Johnny was using forums and early social media platforms and online communities to promote bands and artists before realising he could do the same for brands and businesses.
“I was engaging with a huge audience online and it didn’t matter where I came from or if I had a foreign name – I had a voice.”
He set up Mantra Media with business partner Masatsugu Kuno, who runs the Japanese offices, in 2015. Today the firm works with clientele in four continents from North America and Europe to South Africa and Southeast Asia, delivering digital marketing for businesses, charities and third sector organisations across the globe.
“The ‘driven by ethics’ part of our strapline is from my childhood, and that sense of inequality I was aware of but couldn’t articulate back then.
“As a business we can affect a lot of change and we wanted to be a company that does things differently. From day one we only wanted to work with people and brands that meet our values.
“Some businesses in the branding industry had no processes and no structure – we wanted to do things that were meaningful and made sense.
“We work with national and international brands, charities, SMEs and governments all over the world – including currently Tokyo and Kyoto – but have turned down work with high profile brands in the past because we didn’t feel they shared our values or we didn’t like their work practices.
“Integrity is everything. It’s got to be about more than creating a profitable organisation, it’s about creating a model for work as well. We put people first. It’s why we have a flat structure – everyone here has a voice whether they’ve been here three days or three years. It doesn’t matter what their age, class or background is.
“We have a lot of learning and development opportunities, too – I think that’s of a lot more value than what I tend to think of as the empty clichés of pinball machines and bean bags in the office. Great – but how is that helping your employees?
“You are responsible for them and their financial security. You need to create a workplace and a role that they are passionate about and enjoy. I don’t think you should live to work or work to live.
“We have Private Medical Insurance for staff but also have our psychologist come in to chat to them about any issues they have, work or personal. It’s about looking after the whole person.”
And that approach extends to clients, too – here and further afield.
“We do quite a lot of pro bono work,” says Johnny, who is on the board of The Element Society and Sheffield Futures, to name a few. “We have looked after the comms for Apricot Children charity in Japan for three years.
“We recently sponsored – free of charge – a special fun day event in Nottinghamshire for children with learning difficulties,” he adds. “The look on the children’s faces was beautiful, not to mention knowing we’d given parents and carers some much needed respite.”
So helping charities closer to home, as well as abroad then – and home literally, in the sense of Nottinghamshire and those humble but deep-rooted Midlands beginnings.