The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Lisa Manley of MARS, Inc.
With so much happening in the energy and environment communities this year, it can be challenging to determine what to focus on for this monthly series of interviews. One topic of particular interest to many of our audiences is sustainability and corporate responsibility. I’ve been encouraged to see the importance of these issues increase over the past few decades to the point where they are now front and center in the national conversation and key drivers of business and policy decisions.
I’m so happy to have a leading corporate voice on these issues joining us this month: Lisa Manley is vice president of sustainability at Mars. I’ve known Lisa for more than a decade although we’ve never worked together (even though we have two communications firms in common: Edelman and Widmeyer). I have appreciated her leadership and have always been impressed by her clear-eyed wisdom and insight.
Lisa joined Mars in 2017 as Senior Director, Sustainability Engagement and Partnerships from Cone Communications where she had been an Executive Vice President and the leader of the firm’s Corporate Responsibility Strategy team. Prior to that, she was an Executive Vice President at Edelman leading the second largest Business+Social Purpose team. Earlier, she was director, sustainability communications at Coca-Cola and a Senior Vice President and Group Director at Widmeyer Communications.
Lisa has a Master’s degree from the University of Virginia and has been active in arts and community organizations in multiple cities throughout her career. She was also honored by PR Week last year with inclusion in their Pride in PR series in June 2021. In her current role, she oversees global initiatives on respect for human rights, increasing incomes for smallholder farmers and unlocking opportunities for women. It only makes sense for us to include Lisa in the Common Sense Colloquy series. In fact, some might wonder, what took us so long?
My thanks to Lisa for sharing her wisdom with us – and you.
Q: Sustainability seems to have evolved from a little understood buzzword to a misunderstood trigger word. And ESG (environment, safety, and government) topics that were previously seen as dry and uninteresting are now litmus tests for red vs. blue debates. In this climate, how do you focus on what’s important for your business and keep making progress?
A: I think the debate is a good thing, it means the concepts are taking hold. Five years ago, there was very little conversation about ESG outside a very small group of stakeholders, today it’s the headline within countless discussions and news articles.
Focus is, of course, key to progress and impact! At Mars we focus ourselves based on what’s most relevant or significant to our business and our stakeholders (aka, what’s material). We conduct periodic materiality assessments (and saliency exercises too) and have used them to prioritize our sustainability strategies on doing our part to address climate change, water stress, deforestation, and packaging waste in the environmental space. And poverty, child labor, modern slavery, gender discrimination and health and safety in the social space.
Q: What’s the future for corporate responsibility programs and initiatives? What challenges do you face in continuing to communicate their value? How do you address them?
A: Sustainability has gone main-stream and that’s exciting! And I believe it’s here to stay. When I first started in this space over twenty years ago, we only dealt with these issues when they presented themselves as issues or as a crisis to be managed. Today most businesses have forward looking goals, strategies and investments that are designed to stay ahead of the issues and deliver meaningful impact to issues that matter to people and the planet we share.
I think there still is opportunity to link this work to value creation. We need more brands that put purpose and sustainability at the center of how they build customer and consumer experiences. And we need to see the trends related to conscious consumerism continue to grow!
Q: Your career includes both corporate and agency experience at the highest levels. What have you learned? What advice do you have for agencies to consider in working with companies in this climate?
A: I’ve enjoyed working in both the agency and the corporate setting. Inside a big business you typically have more ownership and control over the agenda and you go deep on a few relevant areas of focus for your business. Inside the business, you are constantly working with other functions (e.g., Commercial, marketing, human resources, legal, finance) to deepen their awareness of and contribution to social and environmental impact. It gets exciting when other functions find their ‘sea-legs’ on these issues.
In the agency context, I find the exposure to different industries and more diverse issues really stimulating mentally.
I think we used to see most people build careers in one or the other arena. Today, however, I think there is a lot of fluidity between corporate and agency careers.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: Keep it simple! Especially with topics that tend to be rather complex like climate change. Try to tell the story in a way that a teen-ager would understand.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: My golden rule is always ‘be, do and then say’. As communicators, we must ground our communications first in who the organization is / what makes it tick / what’s its purpose. We then need to work within the organization to demonstrate commitment and show that meaningful things are getting done. When we are grounded in purpose and action, we can then do amazing things from a communications and marketing perspective. This sequence is especially important with today’s consumer. I think today’s consumer is savvier than any before and if a company gets its ‘say’ ahead of its ‘do’, consumers will call them out!