Interview with UtopiasInterview
An exchange with Antoine Joint, from the Utopies firm
“Hello Antoine, can you introduce yourself and present Utopies?
Utopies is a CSR and sustainable development consulting firm. It was created thirty years ago by Elisabeth Laville, who is still at the head of the firm. We are a financially dependent firm and there are about 80 of us today. This is a fairly large firm on the subject of CSR and sustainable development compared to the French sector.
We work with large companies, and more and more mid-sized companies, SMEs and startups. As well as local authorities and metropolises on all aspects of sustainable development and CSR: building CSR strategies, developing positive brand platforms, developing a culture of sustainable innovation, and building impact strategies.
I have been at Utopies for eight years. Before that, I was an information systems consultant, focusing on IT and transformation issues. I worked for four years at Accenture.
You've felt the demand grow quite strongly over the past few years. Is this very noticeable?
Indeed, our sector is growing strongly. We have grown by 20% over the last two years, and the same for the two previous years. We grow organically without having to resort to investment, which is important for our independence. We really follow the market. It is true that since the end of 2019 there has been an acceleration on the climate.
The health crisis has allowed certain companies to think about their sustainable development strategy and to ask themselves questions. Finally, we feared that this crisis would be a brake on sustainable development and CSR, because generally when there are crises companies reduce budgets related to this to focus on something else. But that was not the case.
Do you feel a sense of urgency in businesses? Is it something that is built over time? What analysis can you do?
I don't think there is a real sense of urgency unfortunately, but there is a real awareness. Today, many companies and investors are saying that they are not doing anything about climate or CSR and that it is time to do something serious. It's a first step, the sense of urgency comes a little later with maturity and after an initial diagnosis.
Once we start talking about sustainability with leaders, there can be a real sense of urgency that may extend to changing their business model or product catalog.
Even if there is not a real sense of urgency yet, it is still a good sign that many companies are now committing themselves to CSR and that many investors are encouraging companies to commit themselves as well. Consumers are more aware and are demanding.
When you carry out a mission for a company that does not have a CSR policy in place, how do you go about moving forward with this type of client? How do you break down the mission to move the subject forward?
If we take the example of a CSR strategy, the first thing to do is to carry out a diagnosis of the issues, this is a materiality analysis. We do internal interviews with members of management. We ask them questions about how they perceive sustainable development in their profession, what it will change, if there are risks, opportunities, etc. Is it related or in opposition to their business?
After that we conduct interviews with external experts who have a more forward-looking or specific vision on certain issues such as plastic, oceans, pollution. This is the first analysis framework which allows the issues to be positioned according to their level of importance for internal and external purposes, and for the impact of the issues on the company.
Then, it is a work of synthesis. We identify the main issues, we put in place major pillars which will structure the strategy (supplier pillar, internal pillar, employees). We put in place commitments, roadmaps, objectives and indicators, etc.
The last step consists of asking yourself: How to communicate this CSR strategy internally and externally? How to value it?
Are you able to follow up over time, to feel the impact of your missions after a few months or years? Are you able to keep in touch?
With some companies, yes. We have been working with some of them for a long time but unfortunately we do not follow them enough. The reason is that we are in a fairly short consulting cycle, with many different clients.
Have you implemented at Utopies everything that you implement at your clients?
At Utopies we try to be exemplary. We were the first company to be certified B Corp in France, and we have been leading the B Corp movement for 7 years. We have set up labels such as Great Place to Work, and we had the best rating of SMEs in 2018 in France. We set up a number of questionnaires for interns, such as Happy Trainees.
Internally we have several things in place: a shiatsu masseuse comes every week, we have yoga and sports classes with another practice, we do a lot of seminars. We also rent an apartment next to our offices to accommodate people who work in the region. We have a policy to encourage cycling, and several other things.
This gives good ideas! From an organizational and team point of view, has Covid changed your dynamic? How would you translate the before and after at Utopies?
Before, we were already doing a bit of teleworking: around two days each, depending on the consultants and activities. We were already used to working remotely. Covid has allowed us to equip ourselves. We took the opportunity to equip ourselves with Stafiz because we needed better management with a digital solution.
What has changed is that we do more seminars when we are not confined. We have more moments of collective reunion than before because we are also teleworking more. We do wine and champagne tastings in the evening, etc.
Now the policy is that everyone does what they want regarding teleworking, you simply have to remain available for team and client meetings. We are more flexible when it comes to position openings in the region.
You have created more moments of exchange outside the framework .
Yes that's it. We do seminars for the whole company, for the teams. We also rent offices which are meeting spaces for the teams.
What has changed a lot are the events we organize with clients.
Do you still go on site a lot? Has this changed?
Yes, it has changed a lot. Before, we organized a lot of breakfasts and we held physical conferences with our customers and partners. And now, much like everyone else, we mainly do webinars. It turned out to be much simpler, and we will continue to do it, because it allows us to reach many more people. Thanks to Covid, we have equipped ourselves in this aspect.
Is there a gap since you set up these webinars, compared to in-person conferences? For the performance of the exchange and the commercial side.
Webinars are not really time for discussion. We take a subject and we push it. We invite experts and customers. It's quite descending. So in this format it's not very serious. People like to register and access the replay to watch it whenever they want
With clients as part of a project, there is much less face-to-face interaction. Which is also a good thing when you think about the distance and journeys involved. Companies remain quite open about remote meetings.
But there are certain moments in the relationship with clients and the life of projects when it is better to see each other. Today, physical meetings are not completely excluded. I have the impression that it came back from September 2021 and throughout the fall, but unfortunately it is starting to happen less and less again ( date: December 21, 2021 ).
The moments in projects where face-to-face and collective are important are to build a climate action plan. We need to talk to each other, to make certain things understood and to exchange ideas. Doing it remotely remains less effective. On these sustainable development topics, people need to share their feelings in order to get involved.
In your opinion, will the consulting profession evolve in the coming years? What will the consulting profession look like in 5 years, or in 10 years? What changes are already taking place? Will the approach remain the same?
In terms of form, there may be more people working freelance or in firms scattered here and there. This is already increasingly the case today. Fundamentally, the future in 10 years is very uncertain: fundamental professions will disappear, sectors will be created and developed (in energy, real estate construction, mobility, waste, etc.), consumption will change, supplier and supply chains will be more tense, climatic hazards more frequent. I think that the consulting profession will evolve to support companies on these new issues.
Do you already work with freelancers?
Some of the freelancers we work with are recognized experts in their field, others are former Utopies employees who have another activity on the side.
It's true that there are more and more hybrid teams. But we also note that in consulting it is not feasible to be completely independent: we will also look for specialized expertise, rather than more general internal profiles.
It's difficult to have a lot of freelancers, because team cohesion is less good. Our team works well because the employees know each other and are used to working together.
When you have 200 to 300 projects per year there are a lot of things to learn from other missions, clients and consultants. Having an esprit de corps is useful. With freelancers and those who live in the region, it is more complicated even if we manage to meet remotely. A disaggregated model that only brings together freelancers, for me that does not make a company. That being said, it depends on the sectors. There may be some where this model can work very well, or even work better.
It is indeed more complicated to create a corporate culture and commitment with this type of profile. When we leave Utopias to join groups that work on these subjects, is it varied? Do you see a trend?
It's quite varied. When you leave Utopies, you don't generally go to another consulting firm. Some will work in companies internally, in CSR departments. Others completely reorient themselves into more cultural professions, yoga, etc. Some remain in the field of CSR but will work in finance or international, global organizations, etc. Some will go to consulting firms positioned differently (large companies, social) or go freelance.
It remains quite diverse and opens up a lot of things! Thank you Antoine.”
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