Advertising, For Goodness’ Sake

July 15, 2013 / Features

By Alex Reeves

ACT Responsible: Fighting the good fight for charity advertising.

There’s good advertising. Then there’s advertising that does some good. A lot of ads are neither. Thankfully, some are both – brilliant examples of communication with a core aim to make the world a better place.

Since 2001, Advertising Community Together (ACT Responsible) have worked to make sure people see the best advertising for good causes, promoting the importance of social and environmental responsibility within the advertising industry. With this mission in mind they gather and exhibit the best advertising for associations, charities and non-governmental organisations around the world.

Arguably their most important exhibition is the one they curate each year in Cannes, while the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is going on. The work here is on show for free to the public and this year over 5500 votes were counted to decide choose best work across four categories of responsible advertising.

But ACT Responsible aren’t just showing off good work. They’re trying to build an environment in which better advertising can be made for these clients. But even after over a decade’s work, the challenges responsible advertising faces are significant.

One of their goals is to close the chasm of understanding between agencies and their charity and NGO clients. And, boy, is there work to be done there.

“Both are hard to educate because they are really not speaking the same language,” explains co-founder Isa Kurata. “Agencies are very creative and they don’t understand why, when they come up with a great campaign, for free, for an NGO, the NGO doesn’t take it.”

That seems like a strange situation. Why wouldn’t you accept free, top quality creative work? The problem is that the message has to be completely right, says Isa. “As associations, even if the campaign’s beautiful, if it’s not our usual tone, if it’s not our beliefs, if it’s not our fight, then we can’t accept it.”

That is a message that ACT Responsible are trying to explain to agencies. The way an NGO represents itself is fragile. Often, the bigger ones even have shareholders – just like in the business world – so it’s not always easy to push an idea through as the creative industry thinks.

Another point worth considering, Isa points out, is that a lot of prominent agencies have had long and very happy relationships with NGOs. Amnesty International and TBWA\ go way back and David Ogilvy has been involved with WWF since its foundation. Other agencies need to realise that accepting campaigns from others can be a political faux pas for these clients. They might think they’re helping a cause by creating a speculative one-shot ad, pro bono, but after putting in years of relationship building and strategy, a loyal agency can easily feel betrayed by this kind of thing. Not to mention the work is less likely to be any good.

“Many agencies have not been doing one-shots,” says Isa, “but working on strategy for years with their client and that’s why they make really good campaigns. Everyone always said TBWA were doing Amnesty’s campaigns to win awards. They couldn’t do Amnesty’s campaigns that well if they didn’t have this relationship. It’s an easy way to discredit the agency and this needs to change.”

There’s ignorance that needs fighting on the other side too. NGOs often don’t know how to brief properly, says Isa. “We are educating them on how to brief their agency to have a clear message. Agencies take the opportunity to make great campaigns because they haven’t got a brief and because [they think] the NGOs are going to accept the ad at the end of the day.”

Of course, the obvious obstacle to these relationships is that agencies can’t justify spending their resources on a client that wants work done for free. “Because they can’t pay it’s hard for the agency and the shareholders,” says Isa. “[Some NGOs] don’t understand that they can’t be treated as paying clients.”

As is so often true, just getting people in the same room talking is good for fostering understanding and ACT Responsible has been doing this for a number of years now, in the form of the NG’Ad Club – a collection of people from NGOs of varying sizes, who ACT Responsible have brought together. ACT Responsible regularly take the group to meet people who can help them make better advertising, from media who can help them get their message out there to digital agencies to work on their social strategy.

Another challenge for ACT responsible to take on is the perennial criticism that charity advertising is an easy brief. Isa virulently opposes this. She argues that this comes from people thinking that charity briefs are open and unconstrained. But on the contrary, the best advertising for NGOs has come when a brief has been detailed and constraints are put on the creatives.

ACT Responsible have a lot of established sentiments to rage against. Accusations that the advertising industry is everything that’s wrong with the world certainly add to this list. Let’s be frank. The average person doesn’t have a great fondness for the marketing business. Isa recognises that advertising professionals are “accused of all the evil in the world.” Bill Hicks probably summed it up best when he told everyone from the industry to kill themselves. Seriously. That was over 20 years ago now, but lots of people still hold similar opinions.

Isa thinks ACT Responsible is great answer to these criticisms, proving that agencies work hard, usually for free, to make the world a better place and support great causes. “We’re showing that advertising is not only about selling goods,” she says, “but it’s also about changing mindsets and ideas, about educating, alerting. It has a huge role.”

Admittedly, good work for good causes helps the reputation of the people who make the ads, but however cynical you are about their motives, they still have a positive effect on the world. “Those ads are changing minds,” says Isa, “making people evaluate or discuss those subjects, where before they weren’t.”

All of this is interesting to the advertising industry and on a selfish level, it is great for everyone involved to shout about how much good they’re doing, but there’s more positivity here than that. Good causes aren’t here to better their personal interests. They exist to improve the future of humanity.

Isa is adamant that not everyone in advertising is selfish and amoral. Agencies love working for great causes,” she insists, “not only because they can make beautiful ads and present it to awards, but also because working for a cause gives sense to your work. So after working all day on ‘how am I going to sell the next washing powder?’ it gives them a break to let them think about ‘how can I make people understand that hunger is the biggest disease in the world?’ Personally, it’s more fulfilling and rewarding, and creative people love that.”

Maybe we shouldn’t all kill ourselves, then.

See all the public’s favourite campaigns from this year’s exhibition here

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