Close-Up: Should charities pay for advertising?

Can pro bono really deliver what a client wants or does it result in lazy solutions, Matt Williams asks.

When it was revealed last week that the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games was only interested in working with ad agencies on a pro bono basis, very few eyebrows were raised. Despite money being tight at the moment, the committee clearly believes that the prestige of being associated with the Games would be enough to tempt most advertising agencies.

It's a tactic that charities have used for a long time. With cash at a premium for these organisations, many seem entirely happy to rely on an agency's good nature when producing their communications.

Twyla Jenner, the donor department manager of the Prostate Cancer Research Foundation, has certainly felt these benefits. The Communications Agency's campaign for the charity, which featured the late Bob Monkhouse urging men to get tested for prostate cancer, helped hugely in increasing awareness of the cause.

"We certainly wouldn't have been able to do anything on such a scale if our agency hadn't offered to work for free. I'd encourage every agency to work for charities on a pro bono basis," she says.

And agencies have traditionally been happy to do this. For them, working pro bono can, for instance, provide experience in a previously untapped sector, build new and lucrative relationships and provide opportunities to pick up some creative awards. And even in these economic times, there's no sign of this attitude changing.

"We have a responsibility in our industry to work for broader causes, the timing is irrelevant," James Murphy, a founding partner of Adam & Eve, says. "I can certainly say that at our agency, we're keen to look at how we can help to do our bit."

But working pro bono is not necessarily the most beneficial way for a charity to conduct its advertising. Money may be saved, but experience has taught some clients that to be treated like a valuable client, you have to pay like any other.

Nick Futcher, the Oxfam brand manager, says: "We much prefer to pay agencies. We find that having a proper business relationship helps to give you more control over the work, which tends to mean you receive more applicable ideas."

Futcher acknowledges, though, that paying a fee for advertising is a touchy subject among many of Oxfam's donors. He says that every penny paid to an agency is scrutinised by the stakeholders, and he needs to ensure that he can hold himself accountable for every decision he makes.

Like Oxfam, Barnardo's pays its agency a fee for its advertising. This has allowed it to form a long-term relationship with Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which has created a number of award-winning campaigns.

Charlie Rudd, the BBH managing director, says payment helps his agency to maintain a level of professionalism with the charity: "Barnardo's pays us because it wants a guaranteed level of service. It can't afford to be fobbed off with a junior team, or not taken as seriously on a professional level."

This may seem like a cynical view, but powerful creative work rarely comes from a creative having a quick think out of the kindness of their heart. Great work comes from a long-term business relationship, and a fully dedicated team.

Charities know that agencies recognise the benefits of maintaining some pro bono relationships and will be keen to take advantage of this. But if they want the sort of in-depth strategy campaigns that can play a vital role in raising awareness, then, in this climate at least, they may have to pay for them.

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CLIENT - Adeela Warley, head of communications, Friends of the Earth

"Working with an agency on a pro bono basis has been hugely beneficial to us. The creative strategy that CHI & Partners provided us with would never have been possible to obtain if it hadn't been happy to offer its services for free.

"Working with CHI has helped us push ourselves to think outside the box. We've helped the agency to win awards and be part of something that has had a huge impact on climate change in the UK, which shows that it can be beneficial to both parties."

AGENCY HEAD - Charlie Rudd, managing director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

"Agencies want to support charities, but the odd free ad simply doesn't work. Just like any other client, a charity needs help in developing a full communications strategy, which only comes from forming a proper relationship. This may invariably mean that a fee changes hands, but at least the organisation will then get what it actually needs.

"This doesn't mean that we're against working pro bono, we're very happy to help organisations get off the ground if we can, but established charities don't need cheap and easy handouts, they need a professional service."

CLIENT - Allan McLaren, director of marketing, The Children's Society

"Obviously, as a charity we're grateful for anything we can get, but we tend to prefer to tender our work, as it allows us to hold more control over our communications and keeps things fresh and new.

"An agency's time is valuable, so we sometimes feel that if they are working pro bono, then they may be less tempted to dedicate the time needed on our marketing.

"I can see why we may be seeing charities looking for pro bono work more and more as budgets tighten, but charities set themselves high standards too, and we need to ensure that we're getting the highest possible standards."

AGENCY HEAD - James Murphy, founding partner, Adam & Eve

"I think that now more than ever, it's up to people like us who are in work and have a certain skill to take on the responsibility for broader causes and give charities support in any way we can. If that means working pro bono, then we should be happy to do that.

"It used to be a ticket to winning awards, but now it's so much more than that. You'll find people in every agency with a real passion for a charity, and that drive comes into working for charity clients goes beyond money."