Thomas Kolster: Moving from the typical brand centric thinking to understanding how one can turn people into active participants across the whole marketing mix

A man on a mission, one of the early pioneers in the do-good space coining the term Goodvertising to describe the changing advertising landscape that’s become a movement in itself. As a seasoned advertising professional counting more than 16 years, Thomas Kolster’s a vocal voice for advertising and brands as a force for good and his book “Goodvertising” is the most comprehensive book to date exploring communication for good.

He’s a globally recognized keynote speaker featured at events like SXSW, TEDx, Eurobest, D&AD, Epica, ad:tech & Sustainable Brands, a columnist for Adweek, The Drum, the Guardian and several other publications and a regular judge at international award shows. As a passionate entrepreneur and change-agent he’s launched impact platforms like Cph:Change and The Huffington Post has dubbed him “Inspirational Leader”.

I talked with him about his latest book, “The Hero Trap”, launched during the pandemic, the changes in the industry as he sees them and sustainability. This is the first part of the interview, stay tuned for more.

interview by Romanita Oprea #reinventyourself #reinventyourbusiness

How was the road from Goodvertising to this new book?

The thing about Goodvertising back in 2009 when we had in Copenhagen the Climate Change Summit and we had all these important people coming to Copenhagen. But nothing happened and I was extremely disappointed and I considered that maybe brands could stand for what is wrong in the society and do something and change the perspective about the climate change.

This time around is something completely different. I should be really happy that some brands are already embracing goodvertising, but we started to see people becoming more critical and skeptical towards those commitments, but the thing this time that sparked the idea was the fact that I was in a retreat in Malaga. I am trying to do this each year and Iook back into what I wanted to achieve, l ooking forward to what I want to achieve in my life and have I been successful in reaching those goals, etc., kind of like a New Year’s start thing.

I realized that if I am my own biggest barrier to change, maybe I have been looking at all this in a wrong way. So, rather than looking at the organization, the leaders that should change, maybe it’s about time we look to people that need to change. Maybe it’s about my values, my aspirations, my dreams. And what I realized is what we needed was to ask a different question. Rather than asking why, maybe we should ask who is going to help you become.

How hard was the pressure of following up after such a successful book than even got you a nickname?

Obviously I wanted to follow up into something that was sparking conversations, but here are too many books out there, so there isn’t any need of another book like it that pushing conversation forward. In a way I think this book found me, just like Goodvertising found me, in the sense that I really felt that a new approach was needed. You can barely go to the supermarket without it feeling like heaven – every brand and product are trying to picture themselves as Mother Theresa or Ghandi or whatever, so I felt there was a need for a new book.

I don’t think you should write a book just for the sake of writing a book, because that is closer to economic suicide. You have to write a book if you have something important to say and I just didn’t have anything important to say for 8 years. And now I feel I have and I obviously hope that people think this is something useful and that will help them think differently about leadership, about how they can pitch in into this world.

How has the advertising industry changed since then, in your opinion?

There is a lot of change that has happened. First of all, so many brands today embracing Purpose, all the big advertising festivals having incorporated some sorts of “do good purpose” awards. There’s been a tremendous shift happening in terms of how people are so much more empowered in today’s marketplace, I mean everything in mass marketing, mass advertising, mass production is already slowly dying if it is not dead already.

There is a real need for a new approach and what I believe is we need to put people in the center of things, they need to be in charge. A 12 years’ old Instagramer already knows how to sell better and how to choose a rather more clever and probably better headline than most marketers out there. He / she is used to creating and being where he /she wants at a click of a button so why would he/she go work for a big corporation?

What are still its main problems and how would you address them?

I’ve been one of the Purpose pioneer and shaping the meaning, but now I’ve seen what’s wrong and how we need to approach it differently: from a company leader brand centric approach that in so many ways are self-important – the brand putting itself into that pedestal and screaming “I am going to save the world”, which is setting itself for failure because obviously at some point you are going to fail. You are setting yourself up for criticism. Whereas in the new approach is about what people are buying today, because when every brand has higher values, you are not buying the big why, you are buying the outcome of that-the WHO can help people become. How can I get smarter? How can I get more connected? That is a felt outcome, something that you can feel, not just a brand that is claiming something.

I also talk about the Wheel of Transformability where I look at the whole marketing mix and how that has to change from the again typical brand centric (we produce, we promote, etc. mindset) thinking to understanding how you can turn people into active participants across the whole marketing mix for them to take pivotal decisions. We are in a point in marketing when we are complaining about people not being engaged enough, maybe it’s because the marketing efforts or the marketing mix are not open for engagement. People are expecting to be part of this. A fundamental difference that people need to be embracing.  

Are companies really learning to be more sustainable or some of them still do it for the free PR?

If we look at what happened in the past decade, sustainability is no longer optional. Some still do it for the PR, but it’s a much riskier approach. I do see a big progress happening across the field. Legislation is a big pressure point, there is so much more regulatory pressure, but there is also a much bigger pressure from the consumers. Sustainability has been the most important conversation topics. There are no freebees in the space and you have to become more sustainable.

In the new book what I pinpoint though is that how you do that, how you convey that leadership is key for the success. In terms of how believable is.

How has everything changed in the industry, from your point of view, due to the pandemic?

One of the things I talk about in the book is how we move from buying everything bigger to buying a better me. The fact that we want to buy self-actualization – this pandemic has actually shown us that there are other things in life as well, I snot just about consumption, maybe is about exploring what is really important in our lives, things like self-development, health, etc. We think about how long it takes to create lasting behavioral change and normally we think it takes 3-6 months and a lot of us have been in lockdown for 3 months therefore these behaviors might stick.

We’ve seen that people have been exploring new hobbies, started baking again, connecting with the family in new ways, so this might be something that would be even more accelerated. Also, if we look at brick and mortar stores and how they are becoming more and more relevant and now they must be more in tune with offering experiences or maybe transforming experiences rather than just pushing products.

The pandemic is almost like a war like scenario and I think that what is different from any other issue that our industry is facing, like our demand for diversity, like our demand to respond for climate emergency. The pandemic is something that calls and eats each one of us to respond and do the best we can, for us to help the society. We all need to do our best, to help out and in this sense it’s something different from what we’ve seen before.

How do you see the advertising of tomorrow and why?

In the book we talk about the Post Purpose Era, so the fact that is not really about this leadership company, it’s really about opening up for people to play a part. It’s really about giving people the possibility to play a much more important part in the marketing industry than ever before and for brands to lead us, to urge the people to be creative, to achieve something, etc. It’s about time we open up our brands for people’s creativity and for them to play with.

How has the pandemic affected you and the launch of the book?

In the beginning I was really afraid how it would affect the book, but it maybe brought closer the Post Purpose Era and even faster, as it changes even the way that people consume. It is even more relevant now than it was when I wrote the book and when it was more an emerging trend.

When it comes to the launch, I obviously had to re-think everything and that was actually a very funny experience in the sense of how do you launch something during the pandemic when you can’t bring a lot of people together. All the subjects closer to sustainability could get boring and I actually don’t think the book is about that at all. The book is about leadership, about meaning, so how do we all create brands for the future, therefore it’s a much broader agenda. Whereas in some eyes Goodvertising can be more niche.

Now is really about how we create the next generation of marketing, of leadership. And I wanted to create that in a fun and engaging way, therefore we directed the launch almost like a TV show, we had a live band, we had special guests. We brought guests from all over the world. It was really fun to make and I don’t think I would have ever thought about that before the pandemic. I was really happy about how that came about. It was about the Hero Trap, the concept idea, etc.


If you claim as an organization or a leader that you are Superman, and obviously I’ve been preaching that myself and I’ve been part of the Hero trap before, you are literally going to fall down like a parachute because you cannot outcry your competitors and you cannot out compete them. Going down the innovation road is just so difficult. It’s like kick opening a door to a bar and saying that you are the world’s best lover. And at some point somebody from that bar is going to find out that you are not and the same thing goes when you pitch yourself as the world’s Change Superhero.

We need a completely different approach that is called The Arrow and is inspired by psychotherapy and coaching. It’s about delivering change per value, making people smarter, wiser, more connected, wherether it might be and when.

I wanted to create a process that was really focused on creating change and what I realized is that companies, organizations and leaders who are doing that are much more successful at getting people and motivating them to create the needed change. Which is a pivotal point because quite often we talk about the fact that people want to buy a competitional brand, but there is also a gap between 30-40% of people are not following true. We need to have a new approach to change people from being these Preachers to making them be the Coaches that are helping us achieve important things in our lives. That is the real concept of the Hero Trap. Not about picturing yourself as the Hero, but about turning people into the heroes of their own lives.