Not so sweet charity: Having a big charity account is one way agencies can show that they have soul

But far from being a trophy, both shops and charities take the responsibilities very seriously. Lucy Aitken talks to the big UK shops and their charity clients.

Think of charity advertising and what comes to mind? The NSPCC's cartoon child, which won a gold Lion for fundraising and appeals in Cannes? The Cancer Research UK ads which fade out individuals from photos? Inserts from The Salvation Army which pop out from the pages of weekend newspaper supplements where glossy ads for cars and holidays are two-a-penny?

There's no doubt of the impact a creative team can make with a charity account. And since charity ads not only compete for attention with each other for the consumer's charitable purse, they also compete with other advertising for standout, it's clear why so many charities feel the need to pack an extra punch. The creative pressure is enormous.

Barnardo's director of marketing and communications, Andrew Nebel, believes in the importance of taking risks in the charity's advertising: "Although we are risk-averse in the sector itself, we are brave clients. We show more willingness to take a risk than corporate clients."

However, not everyone agrees on this strategy, despite the rich emotional links to charities and the potential for creative risk that these can spawn. Peter Vicary-Smith, Cancer Research UK's executive director of fundraising and marketing, comments: "A lot of agencies work on the principle that if a charity's spend is limited, you have to be shocking to achieve cut-through. You don't have to be shocking; you have to be creative. If you look at above-the-line work for a range of charities and ask yourself, 'Is this shocking or is it highly creative and saying something insightful?', you'll find most will fall into the former category."

But handling a charity account, and being a charity client, requires something different from the usual client/ agency relationship. Charities' limited spend can be a minefield with the wrong agency. Perhaps a charity is receiving creative work on a pro bono basis and doesn't feel it has a leg to stand on when it is presented with ads that don't fit its wider strategy? Or the advertisement presented is a brilliant one-off piece of creative, but of little value to the charity's long-term aims.

George Smith, the vice-chairman of the Institute of Direct Marketing, says: "There's no significance in a one-off ad whatsoever. A lot of agencies who have never worked with charities want to do a dazzling one-off ad.

And a lot of agencies take on charities to win awards and that's not a totally dishonourable instinct as the agencies want to make themselves famous. But the agency that says 'we're going to do you a favour' will almost certainly be using junior people on it and want a nice name on their client list. Clients should pay for what they get."

Yet maybe - and no quizzical eyebrow-raising here please - agencies want to undertake work at little or no fee for a charity they feel strongly about. Most big agencies have one big charity client and some even stretch to two. Surely this is a positive step?

David Richards, the director of marketing at The Samaritans, says: "I believe there is a kind of soul in ad agencies which wants to put something back into society and I think that is important for their staff. That's not to rubbish their bread-and-butter clients, but we bring something else into it."

However, David Dunn, British Red Cross' head of marketing, is cynical: "An agency needs to have more than one charity client to really understand the sector and not be tokenistic. They say 'we're giving something back to commercial clients', but you have to remain sceptical about their motives."

Vonnie Alexander, a partner at Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw, recommends a middle ground: "It makes a difference if you have some empathy with the cause. Apart from that it's the same ingredients as a traditional agency/client relationship, so that means being open, honest and committed to producing great work and achieving great results."

One example that embodies just how effective a good agency/charity relationship can be is Warchild's viral campaign through Abel & Baker. Chris Clarke, the creative account director at Abel & Baker, explains that this particular piece of work was pro bono, although the agency has been remunerated for other pieces of work. The campaign came as a PowerPoint presentation comprising images to do with 11 September and the Taliban. It subtly guided readers into facts about the war in Afghanistan before appealing for donations.

Hits to the website peaked and instantly generated £1,000 for the charity against the campaign's negligible cost. This demonstrated the value of viral marketing in an appropriate context and the campaign won a Campaign Direct award for its troubles.

Clarke makes the point that he'd been interested in Warchild since the Help album in 1995 and wanted to help the organisation when the war broke out in Afghanistan. He states: "There doesn't have to be a vast amount of money; it's more important to have a vested interest in making it work."

This is a sentiment Richards echoes. "I think that things work when there is a common vision between the two organisations and when both organisations have a mutual commitment and understanding. We are expert in what we do and the agency brings expertise in what it does. The charity is currently believed to be on the receiving end of pitches from three agencies.

Richards also respects the role played by The Samaritans' media agency.

"The role of MindShare is integral to us to make our limited budget work hard. It has brought in more than £2 million of free space in the past 12 months and that is so important for us. It is just sparkling." Similar praise is heaped on the brand consultancy Wolff-Olins. "We're reviewing our brand and the work we've done with Wolff-Olins in the past 18 months has been absolutely critical. We're good at knowing about despair, depression and suicide but we're not experts in branding. Yet we need to be, and not just as a cosmetic exercise, but to understand who we really are."

And the first step for any agency working with a client should be to make some inroads into understanding the charity. David Dunn at British Red Cross reveals that he encountered enormous confusion from agencies when the account was up for grabs. Not many agencies realised that 50 per cent of work done by the British Red Cross was domestic, with the other 50 per cent being dedicated to international aid. If the agency suffers from the same ignorance as the public, how will it assist that charity in weeding out misconceptions about its role?

The crucial lesson to be learned is that charities should not be seen as a shortcut to awards and trophies, or as a worthy extra on agency creds. As most charities have become sophisticated professional operations, often employing marketing staff from traditional clients, they are desperately seeking slick agencies to help propel them ever further forward. In other words, no timewasters, please.

AMV AND CANCER RESEARCH UK

Peter Vicary-Smith - Executive director of fundraising and marketing, Cancer Research UK

"We are treated as well, if not better, than Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's other clients and we are just as demanding. We certainly don't get a second-tier service. AMV's creative reel impressed us, although we didn't choose it because of the work it had done for other charities. It was more because we felt that it could achieve cut through in a crowded marketplace on a difficult and sensitive issue.

"Charities often have weaker in-house marketing departments compared with traditional clients and they don't often understand their brand as well as a normal marketing department. With pro bono work you might get good creative people working on a single idea, but you don't get the support from planning which plays a valuable role in helping a charity to understand its brand. AMV has given us tremendous insights into our brand."

Mandy Courtney - Board account director, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

"I've worked with Cancer Research UK over the past two years or so. There wasn't a pitch; we presented our creds against two other agencies. One should service all clients on the same level. But I sense from my team that there's a stronger emotional link when you're dealing with cancer. Everyone goes that extra mile anyway, but you go even further for one of these accounts."

BMP DDB AND OXFAM

Anne Harvey - Marketing manager, Oxfam Shops

"This campaign fitted perfectly with our aims as we were seeking a younger, more fashion-conscious customer.

"Charities should choose agencies using the same criteria as if they were paying for the services and ask: 'Does the agency understand the brand? Is the commitment to work together feasible on both sides?

Is the campaign concept true to the product? Will the work enhance the reputation of the charity and the agency?'

"A potential problem would be a charity accepting work that does not fit in with its brand or marketing strategy purely because it is free and because the agency has impressive credentials."

Philip Heimann - Account director, Oxfam Shops, BMP DDB

"A placement team we had hired came up with an idea for Oxfam Shops in their portfolio. We were so impressed with the idea and its relevance for Oxfam Shops that we approached Oxfam directly with it. It fell in love with the idea and it became the 'now in' poster and cinema campaign which launched in 2000. The advertising aims to make consumers take another look at Oxfam Shops, encouraging them to visit them when they are on the high street.

"We service the account as we would any account in the agency. BMP and OMD do not charge fees for working on Oxfam - we took on the account because the agency wanted to do something for Oxfam and because Oxfam believed we could do a professional job."

BBH AND BARNADO'S

Andrew Nebel - Director of marketing and communications, Barnardo's

"I appointed Bartle Bogle Hegarty to be Barnardo's agency four-and-a-half years ago. I didn't pitch. I don't believe in pitches; they're a waste of time. Our relationship with BBH is built on trust and credibility.

I knew the people at BBH, their reputation and their principles. So why mess around going through months of pitching?

"The relationship really is a genuine partnership. The way I work with BBH is the way in which a corporate client would work with them. I expect the agency to respond to our brief the same as it would with any blue-chip brief."

Steve Kershaw - Group director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

"As with any client, I think the quality of the work has much to do with the people who you're working alongside. You need to have people who can understand the creative process and what that can bring.

"Barnardo's is a surprisingly large organisation and had a turnover of £150 million in 2001, which makes it just as big as other clients.

"You have to structure the account so it's about a sustained campaign built on firm foundations. We have provocative material to work with, but so have a lot of other charities and a lot of charity ads don't cut through hard enough."

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