All Roads Lead to Good

Bill Novelli, C’63, ASC’64, reflects on his career in social marketing.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

By Ava DiFabritiis

Bill Novelli, C’63, ASC’64, has long emulated his alma mater’s commitment to knowledge for good. A marketer by trade, he adapted his skills in marketing and communication to promote social change. His career trajectory has taken him through business, government, and civil society. “I’ve got this career goal that evolved, and it’s to make significant contributions to solving major social problems,” he says.

Bill Novelli, C’63, ASC’64

Courtesy of Bill Novelli, C’63, ASC’64

But as a new graduate in 1964, Novelli had other aims: making it in New York’s marketing and advertising world. He rose from sales trainee to brand manager, selling items like detergent and cat food. “Get a job with a big company, climb the ladder … that was the image of our day,” he recalls, though he felt something was missing.

That changed when Novelli was assigned to build viewership for the Public Broadcasting Service. At a network press conference, he was struck by the Sesame Street approach to learning; in his view, it was much like marketing. He began to wonder: could the tactics that sold products be reapplied to advance social causes?

Novelli left his agency job to test this theory. A pioneering career in social marketing unfolded over the next 50 years. He has raised awareness for the Peace Corps, lobbied against the tobacco industry, managed a humanitarian aid organization, and launched a national alliance to reform palliative care. He founded a public relations firm for social impact, where his team ran campaigns to influence health behaviors. His greatest challenge was an eight-year tenure as CEO of AARP, leading the nonprofit’s response during a contentious period of national debate over Medicare and Social Security policies.

Good Business: The Talk, Fight, Win Way to Change the World, by Bill Novelli, C’63, ASC’64

In looking back on his journey, Novelli came to another realization. “My thought from a long career is that wherever you are, whatever organization you’re in—a nonprofit, a corporation, government—whether you’re just starting out, you’re mid-career, or you’re retired, we can all make a positive social difference. Today, of all times in our American history, we need it.”

Novelli’s current mission, as an educator and author, is to help others use their talents to address pressing issues in society. “We have to make things better for future generations,” he says. “I feel very optimistic about the future, about what we can do.” His latest book, Good Business: The Talk, Fight, Win Way to Change the World, conveys lessons learned in his professional life and encourages readers to “look for pragmatic opportunities to solve problems.”

At Georgetown University, Novelli shares insights on creating social change as a Professor of the Practice and founder of Business for Impact, a program that partners with organizations across sectors. “More and more companies are seeing that they can create financial value for their stockholders by creating value for the rest of us—for their employees, for their suppliers, for their customers, for the communities where they work,” he says. “The idea of doing well by doing good is really taking hold.”

Novelli, who teaches courses on principled leadership and nonprofit management, also sees interest in this idea among today’s students. He advises graduates to follow their sense of purpose wherever it leads: “I say to them, ‘There ain’t no path—you have to make your own.’” As for his path, “it was not linear, but the joy of it is that you find your own way.”

As a Penn student, Novelli never predicted such a mission-minded detour in his future. He liked writing and studied the art of communication in the College of Arts & Sciences, majoring in English with a focus on journalism. Outside of his coursework, he played varsity football and lacrosse, served in student government, and waited tables. He even got an early taste of sales by running the university birthday cake franchise.

“One of the things you learn at an elite school like Penn is you don’t leave as a finished product. You go out of a school like that learning to learn, and you spend a lifetime learning.”

Novelli remained at Penn for another year to pursue a master’s degree in the Annenberg School for Communication. Between dates with his future wife, Frances Bickell, CW’64, at the School’s TV lab, he secured an advertising job at consumer goods giant Unilever. He credits Penn with guiding him toward this pivotal first step. “Going to Unilever was a hugely important moment in my life. That’s where I really learned my trade. I was prepared for that because of Penn.”

Staying connected to Penn as an alumnus was important to Novelli. An ardent fan of Quaker sports, he relished opportunities to cheer on his former teams in pre-pandemic days. He has also served on his Reunion Committee and on advisory boards at Penn Arts & Sciences and Annenberg. “I’m about as Red and Blue as you can get,” he says.

Novelli believes his Penn education helped him navigate the twists and turns of his career. “Penn started me on that journey,” he says. “One of the things you learn at an elite school like Penn is you don’t leave as a finished product. You go out of a school like that learning to learn, and you spend a lifetime learning.”

By mastering the principles of persuasion and applying them in innovative ways, Novelli achieved what Benjamin Franklin called the “aim and end of all learning”—service to the greater good.