Toby Usnik
Artrepreneur Creative Careers Podcast

Thriving in the Caring and Creative Economies

Thriving in the Caring and Creative Economies
Artrepreneur Creative Careers Podca...

00:00 / 00:24:33

Toby Usnik has made Corporate Social Responsibility the focus of his career. Most recently, he was Chief Corporate Social Responsibility Officer and International Director at Christie’s, where he created core philosophies and implemented philanthropic programs around shared organizational causes.  Today he works with organizations and individuals to catalyze movement along the spectrum of caring and impact.  His book, The Caring Economy: How to Win With Corporate Social Responsibility, shares his learnings from three decades in this unique field.


Grace Cho [00:00:00] Good morning. This is Grace Cho of Artrepreneur. Today we’re speaking with Toby Usnik. Toby is the author of “The Caring Economy: How to win with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)” available on Amazon. Mr. Usnik has held many important positions: Chief Corporate Social Responsibility Officer and International Director at Christie’s, The New York Times as the Executive Director of Public Relations. You were also the head of Global Communications at Razorfish. The list goes on and on.

Grace Cho [00:00:27] Today we’re going to talk to Toby about corporate social responsibility. I’m so honored to speak with you today, Toby.

Toby Usnik [00:00:34] Thank you, Grace. I’m honored to be with you.

Grace Cho [00:00:37] I’d love for us to learn more about the book that you had written around corporate social responsibility. But first please define what that is for us.

Toby Usnik [00:00:47] Well, corporate social responsibility is, in a certain sense, whatever a brand or an individual interprets it as, but in the broadest sense it really is both the philosophy and the practice of an organization or corporation to be more responsible in their transactions and their daily interactions. Vis-a-vis their employees, vis-a-vis their customers and vis-a-vis the larger community. So, I often describe it in the “Caring Economy” as a bull’s eye, where a brand looks at those three circles.  The employees in the middle, the customers in the middle ring, and the outer ring being the other stakeholders, and thinking of that bull’s eye constantly about all our daily interactions with that brand and how we are careful and more mindful about being responsible. So, that’s, in the broadest sense, corporate social responsibility.

Grace Cho [00:01:46] How did you come to focusing on CSR in the first place?

Toby Usnik [00:01:50] Well, it’s interesting because my background is in corporate communications and for twenty-five years or more, I’ve worked in that space, and there’s always been an element of what’s now considered CSR in that function. The roots of CSR, as it’s considered today, really did not just start overnight. There were great brands, legacy brands, like American Express, where I started in the 70s and 80s, started to think about their impact above and beyond the bottom line. A lot of it came from negative matters, such as oil companies dealing with spills, or manufacturers of athletic wear dealing with human rights issues in their factories abroad, and from that sort of reactive approach, brands started to monitor, report, and improve their activities to lessen the negative impact of their business operations. And then that melded in with the philanthropy and these organizations where companies were giving money and supporting causes, usually in their hometowns and communities. Then it grew further to where I think it’s exciting today, which is incorporating thought leadership action. So, for example, say what you will about Nike and Colin Kaepernick and social justice, but it was a bold move for a brand to put a stake in the ground and say, “we’re going to stand behind this issue”. So, now we’ve really gone into almost an activist area with certain brands. Starbucks and straws, Nike and social justice, Levi’s on gun violence. This is an amalgamation of many different brands and corporate practices over the past several decades. But now it’s getting a little bit more uniform globally with corporations, so I think it’s bringing the potential impact to an even higher and greater level. It’s quite exciting.

Grace Cho [00:03:51] So by that, do you see this taking hold both in the US and in global businesses?

Toby Usnik [00:03:57] As with most issues in life there is a spectrum. I call my book “The Caring Economy” because I think the language needs to be simplified because language can throw people off or confuse or just be misinterpreted. But there is no doubt a movement or secular change in business where brands, investors, and employees are now realizing that their brand is somewhere on that caring spectrum and people are going to choose to interact with that brand, whether they be employees, investors, or customers, or all the above based on how caring or responsible it is, and that spectrum is from those who are paying no attention to it to those who are leading the charge.

Grace Cho [00:04:49] That’s very interesting. I’m very curious to learn more about how you launched this at Christie’s.

Toby Usnik [00:04:54] It was a fun launch, in that it was somewhat organic, and no pun intended, because sometimes CSR is another word people use for sustainability, which often connotes environmental practices. That is part of CSR, but it’s not the whole of it for corporate citizenship. We were already doing a lot of things at Christie’s that fall under what one considers CSR. We just didn’t have a CSR program formalized. So, for example, I launched the Green Auction at Christie’s, which was an environmental-oriented auction we brought four environmental groups: Oceana, Central Park Conservancy, Conservation International and Natural Resources Defense Council together for a three-year commitment to raise funds and awareness around environmental activism.

Toby Usnik [00:05:43] And it was a huge success getting these four players together. It brought in a lot of buzz. We had Nicki Minaj at the start of her career, Anna Wintour, and Salma Hayek, and just fantastic, fun but sort of educational fundraising impact. A new CEO of mine came in to say “we’d like to make a formal commitment to this.” So, based on things like the Green Auction and the philanthropy and the charity auctions that we were doing at Christie’s, I was asked to formalize it and so I did. I threw myself into it quite happily. It wasn’t easy because it was a small team, and we had limited resources, and change is never a cakewalk, but it was relatively predestined, I would say, because we had all the bones of the elements in place. We just needed me to kind of tie together and massage it a bit, tell the story, measure, report on it, and then have ongoing dialogue with our stakeholders.

Grace Cho [00:06:48] How did the arts industry react to it? And then in general to your work with other companies?

Toby Usnik [00:06:54] I started when I first began to Christie’s something called Arts Con which is a quarterly Breakfast Club for the Chief Communications Officers of all top cultural institutions in New York. So, I started small, building this network and then over the coming months we engaged the Guggenheim and MoMA, and then we went to Morgan Library, and Newark Museum. In the past couple of years, we’ve gone even a little farther outside of the city and a little bit smaller, so we have DIA Beacon involved. What happens is the communications folks are often the odd ducks in the organization. So Arts Con is kind of like an odd duck’s convention where we come together once a quarter and we address the shared concern for promoting the next generation of culture seekers. So even though, in a sense, these organizations compete for viewers, visitors, and dollars, there are some things in which we’re all in this together. And so Arts Con is a great way of finding that common ground. That’s why I, as a commercial member, was able to go to the nonprofit organizations and bring them in. They could have been mistrusting, but in fact valued my insights, and we moved forward together to this day. So, we’ve had a great way of sharing and collaborating. It’s wonderful to have a founding board of peers in the cultural community who know each other, have each other’s backs and we, equally importantly, have the ears of our directors, and our CEOs, so that we can really get the best thinking and collaboration around quite significant issues of our time.

Grace Cho [00:08:35] I love that. I love the way you described that CSR is at the middle of politics, education, and media and companies, and you’re sitting right in the middle of all of that, and these corporate communication heads have to deal with all of those.

Toby Usnik [00:08:49] That’s true and the irony is, this is just what I did and what my colleagues did and what we do. So, this somewhat is innate. I’d like to claim credit for creating it or being the originator, but I’m not. What I am doing is helping my readers see the history, the legacy, the evolution and invite them to both be a part of it, but also to save them time and energy and resources and not reinvent the wheel. I’d like to help my readers, the business leaders, get back to that empathetic, caring position and work from there. If we can think about that in our respective brands, it’s a mind shift. It doesn’t necessarily require money or staffing or resources. It just first starts with a mind shift and hopefully the leaders of the organizations are leading that charge. But even if they’re not, if you’re in the rank and file of an organization, you can still be that change.

Grace Cho [00:09:44] So what would you recommend they start doing?

Toby Usnik [00:09:46] Well number one, congratulations, just having that thought is huge. They often say that first half of solving a problem is to acknowledge that you have a problem. So, I would submit in this day and age, if a brand’s leaders are not thinking about CSR, then they have a problem because this is, without a doubt, more than a trend, more than greenwashing. This is the way the world is headed. These young consumers, employees, and investors are thinking differently about a brand. They have very strong expectations that it’s more than just a transactional relationship. They want positive, additive relationships. So, kudos to anyone who’s at least asking the questions, “what could we be doing differently?” And then the next step I always recommend is to do a listening tour, starting internally. Because all great brands, as my old colleague Catherine Mathis said at the New York Times, are built from the inside out. So, if your employees don’t care about what you are thinking about, vis-a-vis CSR, then don’t even begin. But I promise you if a leader or a mid-level person in an organization starts to talk to colleagues about CSR, or sustainability, or caring, they’re going to find that there are a lot of heads nodding and saying “yes we need to do more, we want more, we care”. And then after you do that, start to hypothesize based on your brand DNA what is in your mission as an organization. What lends itself to be supportive of that? So, for example, we at Christie’s built Art and Soul, which was our CSR platform. And as the name suggests, art was at the core of it. Then the soul piece was just bringing a little bit more meaning into our daily interactions with our clients and with our employees and our other stakeholders. So, do the listening tour and start to hypothesize what would be an expression of your brand DNA that also amplifies your CSR and your caring and then workshop it.

Toby Usnik [00:11:41] I really believe in starting small and piloting things. We looked at our philanthropic activities, we looked at our volunteerism, our employee engagement and then we looked at thought leadership ideas and activities. For example, staking out a position on Nazi-looted art, or on conflict antiquities from Syria and Iraq and making sure that we were on the right side of history. And then once we felt that we had our house in order, then being able to talk about it, and engage others in the cultural community around it.

Toby Usnik [00:12:18] It’s too easy in business to not go there because it might lose a little business or get some bad press. But I would argue that that’s where the opportunities are to not just have a stronger, better business, but also to be on the right side of history and ultimately to see the upside.

Grace Cho [00:12:36] How does a company really show that they’re truly committed versus “this is just another marketing campaign”?

Toby Usnik [00:12:44] So, two thoughts on that. One is, to your point, I couldn’t agree more. I say you can’t fake caring. As a customer, as an employee, as an investor, if a brand really cares about you or not, you just have a visceral reaction to it. So that said, even when a brand is likely to be charged with greenwashing or doing more marketing than actually caring, I would submit that it’s still additive and it’s helpful to track challenges facing the planet. For example, I write about brands like Ford, which has made a big commitment through the years to breast cancer. And it’s admirable, but I don’t think it’s the most authentic use of philanthropic dollars or example of caring, because to me it looks like a bold move to just sell cars to women. And that’s not to say that those dollars spent aren’t helpful for a really important cause, but I think that for automobile manufacturer, that money, those energies would be better spent looking at artificial intelligence, or the future of work and how they can innovate and reduce carbon footprints and create jobs, and other things that, in fact, most of the auto manufacturers are now doing that.

Toby Usnik [00:14:03] But this is an evolution for CSR and as the customers, employees and shareholders get more activist, you’re going to see it get more and more sophisticated, so that the authenticity is going to be more obvious. And I think actually we’re going to see brands iterate, which I do recommend in my book. So, Ford, I think over time, will be doing more and more around thought leadership work, and technology, and the future of work, and artificial intelligence, and driverless vehicles, and let those who are perhaps in the health care or medical research areas take up more of the lead around breast cancer.

Grace Cho [00:14:49] Here’s the irony: a lot of companies might think that there’s not enough return, but when you do this authentically, in fact, there is a financial gain.

Toby Usnik [00:15:01] Yeah. George Serafeim and Bob Eckels, I did some studies with them. I did a sustainability certificate at Harvard Business School, and those two have written and researched about it, and you do see an uptick in the stock price and the performance of companies that make this kind of commitment.

Grace Cho [00:15:21] The power of the visual, in terms of moving hearts and minds, is extraordinary. So, visual artists can play a very important role in pushing forth CSR with companies, with various brands, and in the work that they do.

Toby Usnik [00:15:42] Yes, I say often that we are living in the most connected and creative time in history. So, if we can’t solve these problems that we’re facing, then it is our fault, because we should have the best thinking, and the best collaboration, no matter who you are or where you are. We now have the potential to share your thinking, your ideas, not even as a formal artist, but just as someone with an iPhone. You have an opportunity for a platform like never before in history, and you can take it directly to the consumer, to your legislators. And then for the brands, they are really now experimenting more with social media and less with advertising and they are shifting from people like me being the brand policeman to becoming the brand ambassadors where you have to have a dialogue. And the visualization of data and messages is absolutely where it’s going. People don’t have time or the attention span to think more than a quick slide of a photo on a website or on a phone. So, I think it’s going to be very exciting for artists. The other thing I would say is, particularly in tech, because there’s a movement afoot now that I think you’ve all heard about: STEM education: science, technology, engineering, math, to remain competitive. But what I see more and more is STEM to STEAM, where we’re putting “a” in there for the “art”, because the technical training minds still need that sort of orthogonal thinker, the one who can go cross disciplinary and pull these disparate pieces together and artists have that gift.

Toby Usnik [00:17:31] So the STEM to STEAM movement, we’re going to see and hear more about it. You’re already seeing the Googles of the world recruiting more and more from the non-tech world, the artist-type person. And I think that’s a healthy thing. We need to bring that human quality back to business. I see this as a nice confluence of tech and STEAM and the artists taking on a more influential role in business.

Grace Cho [00:17:58] I’m going to ask you to be a futurist about this. In addition to what you said, if you look out 10 years from now, if all this was working properly, what would you like to see?

Toby Usnik [00:18:09] What I think is going to happen is the CSR function is going to eventually go away because going back to this concept of a caring economy, we all learned as kids to respect each other, to play fair, to be nice. So, the responsibility of the brand being caring by all employees should be living and breathing traits of a caring economy or CSR. And the Gen-Zs that are coming up now, they just have a higher expectation that companies will “do the right thing”. So, I think as they enter the workforce, we’re just going to see that these brands’ employees are the practitioners of CSR, not a particular department.

Toby Usnik [00:19:00] It’s exciting to think in the next 10 years that all employees, or the majority of employees at brands, are going to be the CSR ambassadors or spokespeople. Because we need to get there. It does need to go away because brands should just, on their own, be responsible. And I think the pendulum is going to start to swing back. We’ve seen how greed has gotten away with a lot in the past few years and I don’t think that’s sustainable, because people are feeling pain, people are feeling left behind and they’re also now realizing that they can have a voice, they can have a role in changing that. And business is the biggest lever for social change and it’s quite exciting for those brands that want to embrace that and go there. Those that don’t are not going to recruit and retain employees that they need and want, and I don’t think that the customers and the investors are going to go there. And the second point I’d say, and this is real proof in the pudding, is Larry Fink who runs BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the world. 7 trillion dollars under management. He has, for the past two years, in his stakeholders’ annual letter, said purpose and profit are inextricably linked. So, they expect now in all brands that work with them, that they track, monitor, report on what’s called ESG (Environmental Social Governance). It is the fastest growing area in financial services. So, the fact that the big investors the big asset managers are really getting behind this, that they feel they have a fiduciary responsibility to do it is proof to me that it’s going to be harder and harder to get away with bad business practices. If you’re not going to look at social justice, environmental degradation, fair wages, inclusion, you’re really going to be hard pressed.

Grace Cho [00:20:53] Outstanding points. I read that and I was really applauding him for bringing such focus to it.

Toby Usnik [00:21:01] It’s proof that this is not a fringe movement; this is mainstream. This is where business is headed and it’s only going to become more the case.

Grace Cho [00:21:10] Now, Toby, you personally have had such an incredible career, a huge one with lots of important positions. I’m just so curious as to why you chose this and what is it giving back to you.

Toby Usnik [00:21:26] I dedicate the book to my mom. I was fortunate to come up in a loving family situation. My mom was widowed with five boys, single for many years and eventually remarried. I have incredible respect for her. She’s since passed away, but she taught us that there was always more room at the table for anyone. And you can imagine a widow with five boys still finding room at the table at Thanksgiving to bring in some exchange students, or the military who couldn’t go home for Thanksgiving. And that infused me throughout my life. So, in a sense, this is the journey I’ve always been on. So I’m thrilled and excited that I’m able to help other brands build out that kind of legacy, because we need to get there. I mean the planet is in peril. People are hurting and the leadership is lacking in many organizations. And if I can help move brands further along the spectrum to more caring more responsible practices, then I feel like I’m on mission for who I am, both in my DNA and in my upbringing. Going beyond my family and my upbringing, I’ve had the great fortune to work for great leaders at great brands from American Express, the New York Times Company, and Christie’s. You know when you’re in the presence of a great leader. A leader is someone quite simply that we want to follow, and I can see it in a five-year-old or six-year-old. And it’s mesmerizing to see leadership traits in any individual and to encourage that and use our power, our influence to nurture that is not only joyful, but I think it amplifies and rewards us more. And I actually think that that’s true leadership. I think there are a lot of charlatans out there that are leaders but they’re using divisive practices, or corrupt practices, and that will not endure. I think that evil and greed will always be present. But I don’t think history will view such leaders favorably. And I don’t need to be proven right on this, I know this. And so I will just keep on doing what I’m doing, even if sometimes I feel a little bit alone. The truth of the matter is I’m not. I feel more and more like people are realizing what’s at stake and what the opportunities are.

Grace Cho [00:23:55] Toby Usnik, it’s been our great pleasure and honor to have spoken with you. Please come back with an update. But in the meantime, all of our listeners out there, please take a look at the book, “The Caring Economy: How to Win with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)”. It is available on Amazon. You could also go to Toby’s website I look forward to seeing you again.

Toby Usnik [00:24:26] Thank you, Grace.

Grace Cho [00:24:28] Thank you. This is Grace Cho, Artrepreneur. We help creatives succeed.

About the author

Grace Cho

Grace Cho is the Founder and CEO of Artrepreneur by Orangenius. She has an artist heart and business mind. With over 25 years of experience in the financial services, media, entertainment, and private equity industries, she has transformed global business units at GE Capital, NBCU, and Nielsen.

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