Pro Bono: Who is it good for?


Doing what I do, and putting it out there on social media, I get to intersect with a lot of likeminded and interesting people. One was a woman from a large US not-for-profit in health promotion and disease prevention. She came to me for advice about how to sustain the initial buzz around her campaign, which had been done probo by a large international ad firm. The work was cool, but then they had walked away without a long-term plan. They had done their job, gathered their industry attention and kudos, and then they were gone.

You can’t blame the agency. They were only acting in their best interest. The client provided a good opportunity to do edgy creative for a good and recognized cause. The client also acted in her best interest, getting free, high quality creative and press attention if only for a short time.

But then she was stuck. And that’s a problem.

Most agencies do pro bono. It’s part of their corporate social responsibility plan. But even N4P and NGO clients need to remember that CSR is part of a business plan. And a business plan is designed to make money.

I may suck at math, but I find the psychological aspects of economics fascinating. And that’s what we’re looking at: the economics of doing “free” work.

Depending on the size and structure of an ad agency, there are different reasons to take on pro bono accounts:

Large, corporate agencies

They’re in it for bragging rights, as well as the global good. Charitable clients offer the prospect of addressing hot-button issues like AIDS, breast cancer, environment and road crashes with impactful creative that gets talked about online and internationally, and wins awards.

The upside, for the client, is that the agency’s desire for fame will bring their brand along for the ride. While the campaign may or may not reach objectives of fundraising or social change, it will certainly get them on the map.

The downside is, well, disaster:

This ad, by DDB Brazil for WWF Brazil, was a PR disaster, even though the video version was a Cannes winner. (The story gets even more awful — the CD on this fiasco, Rodolfo Sampaio, left DDB and this year had another scandalous Cannes Lion (since revoked) for his unsanctioned “pedophile” KIA ad.)

Mid-sized, independent and regional agencies

In these cases, the agency wants to increase its profile, but still needs to pay the bills. They will tend to choose pro bono accounts carefully so not to over-commit resources to non-paying work. This can lead to a more transactional agency-client relationship, where work is traded for sponsorship of, or mention in, the campaign.

Some of the factors a smart smaller agency will consider are whether the cause can motivate its people (especially the creatives) to put in extra (unpaid) time and effort, what the value of earned media is, and whether the subject matter can help bring in similar paying work. (Full disclosure: this is where I stand, so if it sounds like I’m favouring this model it’s my self-interest.)

Small and start-up agencies

Having less to lose, in terms of both overhead and brand, really small agencies can take big risks. In fact, they have to. Since the principals tend to be hands-on, they can spend their own sweat equity on making the biggest bang possible on a pro bono campaign. This can lead to astonishing creativity, but what it lacks is robust staff and network support.

None of these scenarios is better or worse for a N4P or NGO client, but none is ideal either. In each one, the agency and client goals run parallel for a time, then diverge when the initial campaign is over.

Is there a better way? I believe so.

When Tim Williams, of Ignition Consulting Group, was brought in as keynote speaker at a Trans-Canada Ad Agency Network seminar we hosted a couple of years ago, he talked about agency-client relationships that aligned the two parties’ long-term goals. True partnership, he suggested, came not from the agency billing for time and effort, but in sharing the proceeds of the value they generated for and with the client. Examples included CP+B’s profit-sharing model with consumer clients.

How can this work with clients who do not seek profits? I can see two ways:

A different kind of fundraising campaign

Campaigns cost money. Not just for media placement, but for the time and overhead expended at the agency. What if the cost of the campaign were factored into the fundraising goal?

I am aware that this seems unpalatable on surface, as many charities have been criticized for squandering their funds on administration. But would it be any better if it was entirely transparent? “We need to raise $100,000 to launch this important campaign; x% will go to agency fees, and x% will pay for media placement.”

And why shouldn’t the agency get paid? Unless they’re volunteers, the clients are being paid for their work on the campaign. The employees of the media outlets draw salaries too. Why not the agency team? It’s only fair. It doesn’t have to profit the agency, but can it not at least cover costs?

Partnership building

Your ad agency isn’t the only one interested in your cause. Many well-meaning corporations, with much deeper pockets, also want to be associated with your brand. Often, this takes the form of sponsorships of specific events or projects. Why not bring them in to sponsor a campaign?

As a business, your ad agency can speak the language of your other partners. They understand how to demonstrate the real business value of a CSR campaign, how to pitch, how to sell.

I believe that there is a great deal of wasted CSR money out there, because it is simply budgeted and spent on programs without long-term marketing objectives on the recipient’s side. There is a tremendous opportunity for agencies who are invested in their client’s success to both increase and better use the funds coming in from empathetic and appropriate corporate sponsors.

“Investment” is the key idea here. Investment is a long-term commitment that is expected to increase value and pay dividends.

The big question is, are you asking agencies to invest in you?

As a Social Issues Marketing agency, in addition to endless requests for pro bono work, we receive tons of RFPs from NGOs for paid campaigns. More often than I’d like, we have to turn them down because the budget is insufficient for the work and the hard costs (such as media and production) involved. My question is always, “is this really what they need?”

It’s heartbreaking, really. In some cases, the Statement of Work has been developed without any real strategy or realism. If only someone could have helped that client plan sustainably and long-term, to campaign within their means and toward their objectives, they would not have had to waste everyone’s time with proposals.

It all comes down to commitment. I find that many non-profit clients are leery of ad agency people, because they feel like we’re trying to sell them something. It doesn’t have to be like that. Not with trust and transparency.

NGOs and other N4P clients should be as trusting of and committed to their agencies as people are with their doctors and financial planners. And agencies — large, medium or small — should work to earn that trust by being open about what they expect to get out of the relationship in the long run.


Go To Top