Finding a Sustainable Why: From Agency to Client and Back Again

by | Sep 21, 2017

I’ve had the great fortune to have experienced both the agency and client sides of marketing and communications over the past 30 years. On the agency side, I’ve engaged with many different kinds of clients. As we work together to discover, articulate and communicate an organization’s particular competitive advantage, I always find myself looking for its “why” – beyond selling products or services.

What is this organization’s purpose? Its vision? Its mission? Not just what’s hanging on a wall in the break room or published in an annual report, but a consistent and clear understanding, both internally and externally, of what its employees are all there to do, and why it all matters beyond a transactional exchange.

Why find the “why”?

When a company knows its “why,” there’s a straighter path to discover or reveal its brand positioning and tell its story … even if it hasn’t been clearly articulated before. And for the organization with already-established brand positioning, the evolution and activation of its brand becomes more natural and organic when guided by a “true north.”

In my three roles on the client side, I’ve had the chance to experience directly what it’s like to be part of …

  • A company that had been around a long time, but never really thought about its brand positioning before
  • A start-up, mission-driven non-profit connected to an established and beloved brand
  • A global Fortune 500 corporation with a powerful 75+ year brand history and a strong sense of purpose

In each case, the “why” was different, and I learned and navigated the complexity of building consensus, developing common language, and aligning messaging internally and externally … within and among departments and divisions, and across channels of distribution, customers and continents. In every case, the “why” was authentic, with true commitments and actions that backed up the claims.

You know the “why” … what’s next?

Since you’re reading this blog post, you likely already recognize the importance of having a sustainability commitment and a story to tell. In fact, you may be the one who drove that commitment at your company. The next step is to figure out how to connect that sustainability commitment to your organization’s product, service and brand stories.

In my experience, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Some internally will be very married to the existing brand story – they won’t want to update it. Some won’t see the value. They’ll see sustainability as a trend or a fad, as opposed to a “why.” And still others will want to leverage sustainability, but they may overpromise and wind up greenwashing vs. telling a heart-felt, meaningful, authentic story.

Here’s my advice, having worked both sides of the aisle:

  • Look for sustainability champions. When you host sustainability forums or post stories on the company intranet, for example, who are the people who are always commenting or participating? What role do they play in the company, and how can they help advance the cause?
  • Figure out where to connect, whether that’s corporate communications (brand positioning), HR (recruitment and retention) or with your business units (product marketing). One or another may be a more natural connection, and they may see the benefits and join your group of sustainability champions.
  • Understand who cares externally, and why. Think about the role sustainability plays in attracting and retaining talent. Look at your existing voice of customer or other research to uncover potential connections between the impact and outcomes of your sustainability commitments and the product or service benefits you’re able to deliver. These will form the core of your story for those audiences.

Ultimately, seek opportunities within your organization to actively leverage your sustainability commitments in ways that are meaningful and relevant to both internal and external audiences. Then you’ll have a sustainable story to tell.

About the Author

Laila Waggoner

Laila Waggoner

Laila brings a unique perspective to her role as VP Client Engagement – based in decades of experience from both the agency and client sides of marketing and communications. She keeps her sights on our clients' goals, needs and desires as she guides our team and theirs toward success.

About the Author

Laila Waggoner

Laila Waggoner

Laila brings a unique perspective to her role as VP Client Engagement – based in decades of experience from both the agency and client sides of marketing and communications. She keeps her sights on our clients' goals, needs and desires as she guides our team and theirs toward success.


  1. Great post, Laila. We should talk further!

    • Laila Waggoner

      Thanks, Jill! Would love to talk more – soon!

  2. I agree 100% with Laila’s comments. It has been many years since we worked together but I love that you continue to think this way about sustainable brands!

    • Laila Waggoner

      So great to hear from you, Jim! You were one of my early teachers on the importance of “why.” Would love to reconnect and work together again!

  3. Laila, a colleague shared with me your ‘Why’ piece and I am glad she did. We have a lot of common ground and would love to connect. I’ve been helping organizations learn ‘How to Why’ since 1999. You can learn more here: Let me know the best way to connect with you. Thanks!


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Suzanne Shelton

President and CEO

Suzanne is the voice and the vision of Shelton Group. Drawing on her extensive experience in energy and the environment – and 25+ years in the marketing and advertising industry – Suzanne provides high-level strategic insights for our clients and guidance for our research and creative departments. She regularly speaks at conferences around the country, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and the International Builders’ Show, and serves as a guest columnist for publications like Fast Company, Green Builder and

Susannah Enkema

VP Research & Insights

Susannah directs our research team and plays a key role in extracting the nuggets of information that pave the way for recommended marketing strategies and creative approaches. Susannah has nearly two decades of market research and strategy experience, including her role as president of SE Consulting, where she led the services for the likes of DIY Network and the makers of GORE-TEX®.

Laila Waggoner

VP Client Engagement

Laila leads our client engagement process, overseeing activities from both a strategic and a tactical level to ensure our work generates desired results – and clients’ satisfaction. She brings 25+ years of marketing leadership experience to her client relationships, with particular expertise in the homebuilding and remodeling industries as well as member-driven organizations, such as the Vinyl Siding Institute and Plastics Pipe Institute. Before joining Shelton Group, she led strategic marketing teams for Owens Corning’s insulation business.

Matt Brass

VP Creative

Matt steers the creative department in concepting, designing and producing campaigns. He ensures sound strategy and deep insights inform everything his team develops, and works closely with the accounts department to ensure copy and designs will meet our clients’ goals. As a designer and filmmaker himself, he’s also a principal contributor to all of Shelton’s in-house photography and videography work.

Courtnay Hamachek

VP Operations

Courtnay oversees our day-to-day operations to keep us running smoothly and support our growth. She establishes project management systems and processes to help our teams anticipate bottlenecks, prevent process issues, and keep projects on time and on target. Courtnay has built extensive experience over 25 years in all aspects of marketing, from account services and project management to design and production.

Mike Beamer

VP Business Development

Mike joined our team to help provide strategic vision and foster our agency’s growth by overseeing new business leads and managing agency marketing and website content. He arrived in Knoxville steeped in energy efficiency and renewables – he previously led client service for an agency division in Boston dedicated to marketing communications strategy and branding for B2B and B2C clients in that space.