Impact Assessment:



progress through adversity

A rigorous look at SYLVAIN’s dedication to corporate responsibility, culture, and the greatest good.

progress works in mysterious ways.

Sometimes, just as it seems your goal is in reach, everything changes.squiggle


You consider if it’s possible to press forward.

BUT if your goal is good, and your commitment real, your wind comes back.

Stronger. squiggle

You find inspiration in your obstacles.

And newsquiggle perspective.

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For SYLVAIN, 2023 was a year of devastating loss, hard questions—and a renewed sense of purpose.

By most key metrics, we had one of our best years ever, with a 22% increase in revenue and an 11 point rise in profits. We brought in new senior leaders to activate an exciting new structure that makes us more client-centric, strengthens our design offering, and expands the impact of our work.

But beneath the surface lay a harsh reality. Before the year even got under way, economic uncertainty made clients in nearly all industries less eager to spend. Backlash politics had a chilling effect on the impact work that we excel at, while driving up demand for the “purpose-washing” work that we reject on principle.

Then came unimaginable loss. In November, our Founder and CEO, Alain Sylvain, passed away, leaving those of us who were fortunate enough to work with him in a state of shock and grief from which we are still emerging.

Alain was many things to SYLVAIN. A role model. An unparalleled visionary. A creative, brilliant, and deeply humanitarian leader who guided us with integrity, kindness, passion, depth, and generosity.

Most importantly, he was a friend, and his absence will long be felt, just as his impact will forever remain.

These yearly reports held special significance for Alain. As someone who was never afraid to call out the world of business to do better—his own business included—these reports were crucial to his conviction that those in positions of power should be held accountable, to their clients, to their employees, and to their broader communities.

With proven leadership in place and a strengthened bond across the entire company, SYLVAIN is more committed than ever to living out those convictions. Because it’s easy to live your principles when the world is cheering you on. What counts is how you act when you’re tired to the bone, your values are under attack, and the easier, less principled path beckons.

In this, our third annual impact report, we once again use our Accountability Framework and other proprietary tools to measure our performance against our ideals. As always, this report is our attempt to formalize what has always been a gut instinct at SYLVAIN—to narrow the gap between delivering for our clients and serving the public.

After many months of reflection, we find that our founding principles continue to be our surest guide to an impactful and prosperous future.

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Cultural winds may shift. Business trends come and go. And for some, progress will occasionally go out of style. But SYLVAIN long ago committed to being stewards of progress, not bystanders, for society at large.

We embark on 2024 as a company transformed, more determined than ever to make sure that some things never change.

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All businesses face headwinds. The challenge is figuring out which of those winds will blow through, and which will grow strong enough to blow your house down.

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One headwind battering all client-facing business in 2023 was a general reticence among companies to spend. Although the U.S. economy, like the economies of many industrialized nations, actually fared pretty well (resilient job markets, strong consumer spending, rising wages), the constant drumbeat of bad news about inflation, interest rates, layoffs, and a looming recession that never materialized sparked an epidemic of skittishness among professional-service clients.

By June, three-quarters of clients had canceled at least some of their existing or prospective projects, while two-thirds had paused most existing project work, according to Source Global Research’s annual report on the U.S. consulting market.

We were affected by this reticence as much as anyone. Even as our revenues and profits increased, a general hesitation among our clients to pursue ambitious projects prompted us to reevaluate our structure, recalibrate our staff size and skill sets, and take on work outside our core zone.

But others in the consulting industry faced headwinds of their own making.

The fallout from a declining reputation

In the two years since we published our first impact report, A Developing Story: Self-Reflections of a Progress-Guided Consultancy—in which we introduced our Accountability Framework, a tool for consultancies to narrow the gap between their impact and their values— the reputation of the consulting industry has been degraded amid client complaints about exorbitant fees for questionable returns and a string of high-profile ethics scandals.

As a result, consulting clients are now demanding cost reductions.

Clients in 2023 were five times more likely to expect fees to decrease than they were before the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Source Global Research report, while only about half said that consultancies added value above the fees they charge.

To preserve profits, the same large consultancies that for years have advised clients to shed staff as a shortcut to boosting the bottom line began trimming headcount, with KPMG, McKinsey, Accenture, and EY cutting up to 5% of their workforce.

The situation became so dire that by April 2024, McKinsey was offering U.K. staff up to nine months pay to leave the firm.

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Given this atmosphere, morale in the industry has taken a hit. In a 2023 Korn Ferry survey, one in three consultants said that they hoped to be doing something else in five years’ time. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” said one UX consultant from London, “and this is one of the worst times I’ve seen.”


A cultural backlash

Being a progress-oriented consultancy in 2023 meant facing a headwind that spared many other kinds of businesses—and that was exacerbated by the complicity of many large consultancies.

Backlash politics became a serious challenge for us last year as a small but powerful cadre of politicians, in a thinly veiled attempt to put their thumbs on the scale for the fossil-fuel and firearms industries, demonized ESG and stakeholder capitalism as part of the dreaded “woke agenda.”

What followed was a wave of anti-ESG and “anti-woke” legislation. These proposed laws—165 pieces of legislation in 37 states—sought to criminalize government funds, contracts, and pensions, discouraging investments based on even the most common-sense pro-social criteria, like conserving natural resources or prioritizing worker well-being. So far, only 22 laws and six resolutions in 16 states have been passed, but the damage extends far beyond statehouses.

With companies facing tough decisions about where to cut spending, the anti-ESG movement provided safe harbor to gut any initiative that might be perceived as “woke.” Throughout the year, corporate leaders—whose commitments to diversity and sustainability were already shallow—scaled back or even eliminated their DEI and ESG budgets. These same leaders were often fully aware that they were trading long-term value for short-term savings.

Complicity in the name of profits

Despite being one of the loudest cheerleaders for (and beneficiaries of) ESG and DEI management in recent years, the consulting industry stood by as clients unwisely cut these budgets, once again showing their bias toward quarterly results over the greater good, or even long-term value creation. 

Unfortunately for these consultancies and their clients, in spite of the so-called backlash, public support for ESG principles like racial and gender diversity in corporate management remains strong. And the business case for ESG management has long been established, often by the same consultancies that did little to stop clients from turning their backs on these principles.

In other words, the long-term path of the cultural climate remains clear, ensuring that this particular headwind—as damaging and destructive as it might be in the short term—will ultimately amount to little more than a lot of huffing and puffing.


“Using regression analysis, we find that a 10-point higher ESG score is associated with an approximate 1.2x higher EV/EBITDA multiple,” according to a report from Deloitte. “Furthermore, we also find that a company that increases its ESG score by 10 points experiences an increase of approximately 1.8x in its EV/EBITDA multiple. This leads to the conclusion that investing to deliver better ESG performance can drive value upside for a business beyond the associated net financial costs.”

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Riding the long arc

Since its founding, SYLVAIN has been built on the promise of provoking progress for organizations, people, and society at large. For 14 years, we have done well by doing pretty good: helping clients forge stronger relationships with customers by embodying the better angels of stakeholder capitalism.

Having long ago started down that path, we find nothing new or surprising about a backlash to an uprising in social consciousness. 

In fact, it’s a dynamic that Alain thought deeply about—and partly predicted. “While progress is inevitable, so too is the backlash,” he told the 2018 3% Conference in a presentation titled Mind the Backlash. “With every great movement we see some counteraction, the use of coercive power to regain lost power as capacity.”

History is littered with such backlashes. After emancipation came the Jim Crow laws that sought to enshrine white supremacy in U.S. law. After the legalization of same-sex marriage came a wave of “religious freedom” laws that tried to protect anti-LGBTQ discrimination. After the radical authenticity of the afro in the 1970s came the chemically induced indignity of the Jheri curl in the 1980s. The list goes on and on.

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As headwinds go, the “anti-woke” movement will pass. As will the hesitancy among clients to spend. But clients will never seek to do business with companies that are riddled by ethics scandals. Or those that charge a fortune and deliver farce.

Although we reflected deeply on the challenges of 2023, it didn’t take much reflection to conclude that abandoning our impact orientation in the face of a backlash would be a faulty long-term solution to a short-term problem. Because the growing consumer preference to do business with ethical, responsible organizations is no fad. And neither is the need for brands and consultancies to continue adapting to, and accelerating, that reality.

Alain never hesitated to embrace that position, even when easier paths to prosperity presented themselves. Our culture is a direct outgrowth of that purpose and determination, making the choice to stick with our impact orientation an easy one.

We believe that companies that cut back on DEI and ESG initiatives will soon be seeking either to reverse these reductions or to find new and authentic ways to demonstrate their commitments to these values. Indeed, in 2024, we’re already seeing signs of this reversal. 

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At SYLVAIN, our eyes remain fixed on history’s long arc toward social corporate responsibility. It’s the right thing to do, it got us to where we are, and it’s still the most effective path to forging client success.





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Of all the lessons we learned in 2023, perhaps the most important is that hardship and progress can—and often do—coexist.

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Even while facing the loss of Alain and the adverse business climate, SYLVAIN managed to have one of our most successful years ever, in terms of both revenue and serving our mission. While our accomplishments in some areas fell short of the ambitious goals we set for ourselves in 2022, we made substantial strides toward our broader objectives and positioned ourselves for greater progress in 2024.

In this section, we share the results of our 2023 self-evaluation. Although we once again relied primarily on our Accountability Framework to conduct this assessment, our process differed slightly with the addition of our Progress Vision, which we introduced in last year’s report. That vision and its three attendant practices (Unceasing Self-Reflection, Continuous Renewal, and Constructive Generation) provide the lens through which we seek to understand and present our findings.

For a detailed understanding of our process, see Methodology.

Our Progress Vision

At SYLVAIN, we envision a world in which business, culture, and institutions are systemically biased toward human well-being. We are committed to building a human-first future, where the ideas that resonate, the brands that sell, and the choices that are rewarded relentlessly advance a more equitable and sustainable way of life.

In this world, organizations and the people who inhabit them operate in a mode of progress as defined by three constant practices.


Progress Practice #1: Unceasing Self-Reflection

After deploying our Accountability Framework and other tools to measure our annual performance, we identified the four key conclusions that characterized our year:


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Distributing Leadership

Creating more holistic ownership for the company, and therefore more opportunities for our employees, is an ongoing mission for SYLVAIN that accelerated in 2023 with the creation of more structure and greater scale, including the formation of our Executive Leadership Team in July.

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Connecting Through Care

As a company that has always prioritized the health and well-being of its people, we focused heavily on providing care, communications, and mental health resources to our team following Alain’s sudden passing.

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Evolving the Client Experience

By distributing workload across more teams with specific capabilities, we empowered each discipline to focus more on what they do best to produce stronger outputs. This effort created a better and more effective client experience, which furthers our impact through improved implementation of our work.

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Testing Boundaries

We explored new opportunities that required us to broaden our skill sets and capabilities, pushing us beyond what we have historically regarded as our “core work.”

These four conclusions provide the context for exploring our impact through the remaining two progress practices.

Progress Practice #2: Continuous Renewal:


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Distributing Leadership

Executive Leadership Team (ELT)

We created the ELT to better distribute authority and to help streamline decision making, taking us from a flat leadership team of 13 people to a tiered structure led by four. Among the team’s initial priorities was to increase internal transparency about the company’s finances and overall health, partly through the introduction of mid- and end-of-year financial performance meetings. One of SYLVAIN’s key ambitions for 2023, the establishment of the ELT proved essential to continued operations after Alain’s passing.

Elevated Director Roles

We incorporated our directors into company-wide initiatives, such as hiring, learning and development (L&D), and internships, and provided them with new leadership training.

Salary Equity Recalibration

We analyzed salaries globally, then gave raises where necessary to ensure equity. Excluding new hires and departures, 96% of employees received a raise in 2023. All raises fell within salary bands established for purposes of pay transparency and pay equity.

Expanding Perspectives

We placed a greater focus on talent development, providing staff with more opportunities to expand their skill sets and to work in unfamiliar fields. We also continued to broaden the perspectives that comprise our culture, hiring with an eye toward diversity in ethnicity and identity, as well as discipline, professional background, and creative process. In 2023, 78% of our new hires added to ethnic, gender, or identity diversity at SYLVAIN.

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Connecting Through Care

Grief and Recovery

Following Alain’s passing, agency leadership and our extended community came together to provide a vast range of activities and services, from grief counseling, both in group settings and one on one, to adjusted workflows. We worked together to make sure that the news was delivered to the broader community in a thoughtful and timely manner. The ELT worked with Alain’s family to plan his memorial, and accommodated out-of-town team members for longer stays. We extended project work as needed and instituted regular well-being check-ins with project teams, bringing in freelancers for support where necessary. We are also grateful to Lexington, our sister communications consultancy, for lending crisis PR support, and to kyu for supporting us throughout the ordeal.

Progress Practice #3: Constructive Generation


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Evolving the Client Experience


We introduced a triad model in which every project is overseen by a bespoke cross-discipline leadership team that includes strategy, design, and engagement management. This new structure not only ensures better client service, it activates our philosophy of strategy and design working hand in hand to produce the best results. Although we’ve activated this model on most of our existing projects, there is still work to be done before we can deploy it across the board.

Engagement team

We evolved our Project Management team into our Engagement team. We hired a new partner to head up Engagement Discipline, and so far in 2024 we’ve added three additional roles in the department. By creating a more formal client-liaison role, this move helped complete our shift to the triad model. And it’s been a success—compared to 2022, 2023 saw a 6% increase in revenue attributed to Engagement team roles. 

Structural recalibration

Last year, we made the difficult decision to part ways with a handful of project managers as part of our restructuring. We’ve since evolved and redefined the role under our vision of the triad model. This year, we have hired new Engagement team members with wide-ranging experience who are now driving our delivery.

Design team evolution

With the Engagement team formally assuming client relations on design projects, our Design team was freed up to take a more substantial role across all SYLVAIN projects, further bringing to life our strategy-plus-design proposition. To bolster this transition, we expanded the Design team with new talent and fresh perspectives.

Testing Boundaries

Saying no

We continued to decline work that doesn’t serve our vision of progress or align with our culture and capabilities. Saying no to potentially lucrative work is always a challenge, but we continue to believe that it is a crucial aspect of our success, and one that we strive to be braver and more decisive about in the future.

Case Study: Saying No

Saying yes

We took on work that expanded our capabilities, including many projects and clients that have historically been less familiar to us. While the decision to push beyond our comfort zone was primarily rooted in our need to fulfill the business and our desire to make the strongest possible impact, we are also constantly searching for ways to broaden our creative opportunities, develop our skill sets for the future, and engage new parts of our brains. These are core SYLVAIN values that are well served by saying yes to unfamiliar work.

Case Study: Saying Yes

Strengthening our core

Even as we stretch our boundaries, we are committed to doing the kind of core innovation and impact work that defines and sustains SYLVAIN. However, in 2023, our revenue from innovation work declined compared to our historical average, and impact-oriented projects were a smaller percentage of our revenue than in previous years. Bringing new momentum to that core work is a high priority in 2024.

Case Study: Strengthening Our Core

Case Study: Strengthening Our Core

Giving back

As always, we were proud to provide our services pro bono to a number of deserving organizations, including the following two examples.

Case Study: Giving Back

Case Study: Giving Back




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In last year’s report, we laid out five commitments for 2023 designed to keep SYLVAIN on track to becoming the consultancy for the age of social impact. These commitments represented our most ambitious agenda for a single year since our founding.

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As the first table below makes clear, our record in implementing these commitments was mixed. This was partly due to the unexpected challenges we faced throughout the year. But also to blame was our ongoing struggle as an organization to fully integrate our social impact priorities into our day-to-day reality. With an eye toward easing that struggle while fulfilling our unmet aspirations, we are changing our approach to our commitments for 2024, which we explore more fully in the second table.


#1: Create a Center of Excellence (COE) for impact


Several factors led us to deprioritize creation of the COE for now. The lull in new impact work meant that there would be less for a COE to do. And the slow new-business climate required everyone, including our impact leads, to be as client-facing (i.e. billable) as possible throughout the year.


Rather than create a standalone COE during a time of diminished impact work, we will distribute ownership and responsibility for our impact consulting expertise across leadership and revisit the need for a COE in the future.


#2: Optimize our innovation consulting approaches to be impact centered


We made strides in integrating impact into our innovation practice in 2023, primarily by creating an impact-specific credentials module to insert into all new-business proposals (with a heavy emphasis on innovation proposals) and adjusting our innovation credentials to have an impact lens.

In doing this, we realized that the focus of this commitment is unnecessarily limiting. Rather, there is massive potential to integrate these impact perspectives into our tools and work beyond innovation only.


We’ve identified a wide range of new integration opportunities: within new business, through our content, and in our on-project activations.

To optimize these efforts, we will combine this commitment with #5, as the two naturally work hand in hand.


#3: Repurpose employee volunteer time off to create a Social Innovation Hub


Given the hardships that we faced, overhauling staff volunteering efforts took a back seat to more urgent priorities. Additionally, we discovered that team members want to retain VTO.

Although we didn’t oversee a single, company-wide project that all staff had an opportunity to touch, we did perform quite a bit of pro bono work (or, as we call it, juju), as described in the Reflections on 2023 section of this report.


Although launching the social innovation hub remains an ambition for 2024, we’re considering new ways of executing it. We will retain our VTO benefit.


#4: Develop a companywide Impact Training program


We drafted impact credentials for use in new-business proposals, hosted several internal impact education sessions, and created an Impact Toolkit that helped unify our vision, language, and approach to innovation.

We also created A Deck of Science and Whimsy: Emerging Technology, a deck of cards to  educate our teams and clients on the impact potential of new and developing technologies. In the past, we have created similar products strictly for internal use. But in the interest of accelerating progress, we decided to provide the deck free of charge to anyone who is interested.


We will establish a dedicated team to create more impact education modules.

We will also combine this goal with commitment #1, because excellence in our impact work is rooted in education.


#5: Continue to innovate and implement tools for impact systemization


We continue to fulfill this goal within the guidelines of our Progress Vision and its three behaviors. We adjusted the Accountability Framework to include an assessment matrix that streamlines the process and allows us to focus more on our work than on the systems, which was a lengthy and arduous process.

We also altered the Progress Pentagon to fit within a broader Lead Evaluation Tool for Partners and Directors. We’ve used this tool more consistently than ever across every project.


To achieve maximum impact, leadership must own the operationalizing of these tools. Therefore, we are combining this goal with commitment #2.


Our 2024 commitments represent both our current social impact ambitions and our unfinished business from 2023.

For the first two commitments, we have revisited unfulfilled commitments from 2023. Rather than simply pledging to complete those specific tasks, we are doubling down by committing to the values they represent. We hope that this approach will help us close the gap between our social impact priorities and our day-to-day operations.

Similarly, our final two 2024 commitments are designed to infuse our founding values more fully throughout the organization while building on the progress we achieved in 2023.




Put progress at the center of our business by establishing a social impact hub

Our ambition for 2023 was to establish a social innovation hub to pull our entire organization together around a longer-term progress-oriented effort. This year we recommit to creating a sustainable model that will ground this hub through live initiatives and ensure its impact as we move forward. And as recognition that our impact is felt not only through our innovation work, but through our brand work as well, we are changing the name of this initiative from “Social Innovation Hub” to “Social Impact Hub.”


Strengthen our impact capacity by expanding our companywide training program

We’ve always aimed to leverage the distinct skills and perspectives within SYLVAIN to envision new solutions for our clients. This year, we will continue to develop practices and structures—like the Impact Training program we sought to build in 2023—that strengthen collective alignment around our Progress Vision. This effort facilitates sharing ideas, questioning our assumptions, and provoking new thought to generate more impact-led thinking and solutions for clients.


Ground our organization in our founding values

In the wake of our loss, SYLVAIN is committed to regrounding ourselves in the values and mission that we were founded on and that we believe will carry us forward. To do this, we are embedding our impact commitments into our broader company goals and values, and using the tools we’ve created—like the Accountability Framework, Progress Pentagon, and Impact Training program—to root our approach to impact-oriented consulting in these founding values.


Continued focus on care through connectedness in 2024

As a talent-based business, our people are our core. And when we consider that, we recognize that our most immediate impact is on those in our own team. This year, we will once again focus on our team’s well-being, providing both individual care and opportunities for collective healing as we continue our journey of honoring and recovery.




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For all the agony that accompanies the loss of a leader, there is nothing more galvanizing for an organization than the clarity left in its wake.

2023 was a year filled with both hardships and accomplishments for SYLVAIN—with stunning highs and emotional lows. We expanded the scope of our work and impact, found creative new paths to progress, and survived one of the worst blows a company could endure, largely through the strength and care we provided one another. Yet these events have also left us in a state of discontent.

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Looking forward, we see more clearly than ever the potential to unlock great things through the work we do as a team.

In the months since we lost Alain, we have become acutely aware of the many unseen aspects of his leadership. Alain founded SYLVAIN with a vision, a set of beliefs, and a strong moral compass. But those things have always been part of all of us. They remain essential in how our leadership team continues to confidently run the organization, and an obvious differentiator for our clients and partners. Alain always said “this place is bigger than any one of us.”

But now, in his physical absence, we are left with the task of further inscribing those principles. They will remain the light that shines on our path forward. Especially as they pertain to our progress-oriented work.

In many ways, this is a task we embarked on 14 years ago—to build a company brave enough to enable people to inhabit their whole selves, and to challenge clients with the progress our collective strength could deliver. This has lived in tangible and shared artifacts like these reports and tools like our Accountability Framework, but it lives and breathes in our culture everyday. In 2024, we are determined to further articulate, codify, and institutionalize those principles.

As one of Alain’s favorite proverbs tells us, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” At SYLVAIN, we’re excited to continue our journey of progress as a team, more confident than ever that the road ahead is longer than the road behind.