Advertising is under attack on a number of fronts, but the power of advertising to effect social change is remarkable." So says Cilla Snowball, the chairman and chief executive of AMV Group, where the flagship ad agency, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, wrote the line: "Make poverty history." Yet Snowball isn't simply referring to pro bono work created by agencies for non-profit organisations; she's referring to the ability of people in the industry to use their skills to make things happen.
A recently launched organisation aims to draw on those skills and put them to use in the developing world. The International Exchange, founded by Philippa White, a former account director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Leo Burnett, gives people in the communications industry the chance to work on short-term business placements with non-governmental organisations in developing countries. The aim is to strengthen the NGOs' communications skills.
The first two participants in the scheme are busy fundraising their budgets. On 1 October, Chris Jackson, an account director from Leo Burnett, will start work in Brazil with Gestos, an HIV/Aids organisation, on a communications plan to mark Gestos' 15th anniversary. Meanwhile, Penny Brough, an account director at Wieden & Kennedy, will be Brazil-bound in November. She will be working with Plan International, an international development agency working with and for children.
White says: "There is a significant desire for people working in the industry to do something good, but they actually don't want to leave their jobs because advertising's an amazing industry. People in the advertising industry have really good skills and TIE is a good way of developing staff while also having a corporate social responsibility element to it."
Many of the good deeds undertaken by agencies harness the considerable variety of skills to be found across the industry. AMV, for instance, works with the West London Mission on Big House, a residential facility in London that offers training and support to help long-term homeless people re-enter mainstream society. Aside from fundraising, AMV staff can be found at the facility in a number of roles, from fixing an IT problem to helping residents with interview skills. Since opening in March 2002, Big House has helped 44 people get off the streets.
Big House is just one of a number of charitable causes that AMV supports. Snowball comments: "We don't want to force people into supporting one charity, because they have their own commitments on a personal level, so we allow people to take days off to do voluntary work."
BBH organised a company-wide day off devoted to a good cause, although staff had to prepare for it in their own time. The Barnardo's Day Out, on 1 August, saw the agency split into ten cross-department teams who all shared the mission of making as much money as possible for Barnardo's, a long-term BBH client. The staff raised more than £50,000 via events such as a sponsored crawl, a beach party, auctions and raffles.
Steve Kershaw, a BBH group director, says: "Barnardo's was over the moon. There's a natural benevolence in the advertising industry because most people aren't on the breadline, so I think a lot of them feel that they want to give something back."
Down the road at Fallon London, a group of 30 socially responsible ad executives jumped into The Serpentine on a cold December morning and were photographed for a Christmas e-card. The idea was to donate the money that would have been spent on printing and sending out a Christmas card to Breastrokes, the charity run by the Outdoor Swimming Society to raise money for breast cancer research. Breastrokes has been a Fallon client since it launched in 2006. This July, four Fallon staff took part in another swim at The Serpentine.
Alex Sullivan, a channel planner at Fallon London, comments: "Fallon bills itself a cause-related agency, so we believe that all the clients we work on should have a cause in terms of wanting to move on somewhere new, rather than just selling more products. Breastrokes is another cause that just happened to be a charity."
Other fundraising events at agencies have included carol singing at McCann Erickson to raise money for Great Ormond Street Hospital. McCann employees are also encouraged to donate Christmas presents for patients.
And TBWA\London staff organised a "Stars In Your Eyes" event where The Supremes - aka a group of personal assistants - stole the show. The event raised £5,000 for breast cancer research, mostly from ticket sales.
Other agencies prefer to roll up their sleeves and offer more hands-on help. One such is Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, which, in June, took part in the London Better Together Day - a scheme to help businesses improve the capital. A 25-strong team redecorated the cloakrooms and teaching support rooms at Chisenhale Primary School in East London. The joint managing director of DLKW James Pool reflects: "The people who took part could see that they had made a tangible difference."
And DDB London spent an afternoon in Hounslow making a disused play area safe and accessible for children, as part of its DDB Volunteer Day. It also runs a weekly reading mentoring scheme, where 40 members of staff go to a Paddington primary school to work one-to-one with pupils with reading difficulties. Nick Fox, the chief operating officer at DDB, echoes Pool: "People like to feel that they are physically contributing. Without being high and mighty about it, we like to feel a part of the community and, when you concentrate your resources like we have in Paddington, you can make a real difference."
At Leo Burnett, there's a team of employee volunteers - nicknamed "sprouts" - who also get involved with local community projects, many of which have benefited the Masbro Community Centre in Shepherd's Bush. Here the "sprouts" have given the garden a makeover, renovated the creche and organised a themed "Wild West" lunch.
Many of the agencies who were contacted for this feature were uncharacteristically shy about talking about their good deeds. But if advertising is often used as a scapegoat for society's ills, maybe now is not the time for being coy about the genuine contribution that advertising is making in different communities. Big House, for instance, has provided a business model for other homelessness charities. What's more, it has proved that it is more sustainable than housing the homeless in hostels.
White no doubt speaks for many in the industry when she says: "Getting involved and using skills in the way that benefits other people in a positive way starts to show that we have a conscience and a heart."
AMV/Big House AMV worked with the West London Mission to build a halfway house for the long-term homeless. Some 44 people have put themselves back into permanent housing and employment, thanks to the facility.
BBH/Barnardo's BBH devoted 1 August to making money for Barnardo's. Ten teams raised more than £50,000 for the charity through a variety of events.
DDB London/community projects Forty DDB staff work one-to-one with children with reading difficulties at a Paddington primary school; DDB Volunteer Day was spent regenerating a disused playground.
Delaney Lund Knox Warren/London Better Together Day A team of 25 staff from the agency decorated cloakrooms and teaching support rooms at Chisenhale Primary School in East London.
Leo Burnett/sprouts "Sprouts" are volunteers who work on community projects, which have so far included making over the garden and renovating the creche at the Masbro Community Centre in West London.