Mike Preston: Pro bono campaigns don't work

Mike Preston (2).jpgBy Mike Preston (left), principal and executive creative director, Headjam

It may seem like a great idea to have a group of creatives to do your campaign free of charge. And many people in the industry happily work pro bono because they are passionate about a cause.

Others are only passionate about the opportunity of winning an award, and often the campaigns are a short- term Band-Aid fix rather than a long-term solution.

Over the years I have provided my time pro bono for countless projects in the area of mental health. I have a personal reason for my passion of highlighting mental illness, and it has driven me to work on many campaigns pro bono. That was until last year at The Mental Health Services (TheMHS) conference, where I had the profound realisation that it just doesn't work.
I was a co-presenter with Rob Ramjan, chief executive of the Schizophrenia Fellowship NSW, renamed One Door Metal Health. Rob and I spoke about our 16-year collaboration and the resulting mental health awareness campaigns.

The catalyst for my relationship with Rob was a chance conversation in 2002 with Jo Kouvaris, a work colleague at Clemenger BBDO, as we stood outside the office during a fire drill. Jo and I shared our experiences of schizophrenia. She told me about a family member and I told her about my daughter Sarah.

We decided to do something and to offer our services and Clemenger BBDO's (even though at the time we hadn't asked the agency's management) to an organisation helping people with schizophrenia.

The only one listed in the Yellow and White pages was the Schizophrenia Fellowship of NSW. At our first meeting we asked Rob Ramjan: "What can we do to help?" Rob replied: "Anything you like."

At a planning session Rob showed us a then-recently released list of the early warning signs of schizophrenia. My first thought was of my daughter Sarah, if only we'd known sooner.

The early warning signs of schizophrenia are confused thinking, lack of concentration, hearing voices, interrupted sleep, seeing colours, paranoia and smelling things that aren't there. It was obvious this information needed to get out to as wide an audience as possible, but the fellowship had no money to pay for a campaign, let alone money to run it.

The deal with the Clemenger BBDO management was simple. "You can use the agency's resources, but whatever is produced needs to be done out of hours." Jo and I shared our stories with work colleagues in the agency. Often they would tell us their own experience of mental illness. Through those conversations we were able to put together a team of 10 including a couple of outsiders who were also willing to give up their time to help.

With a production budget of zero, Jeremy Southern and I came up with a simple, easy-to-produce campaign idea. It consisted of three TV commercials, a series of posters, press ads and postcards, each highlighting an early warning sign of schizophrenia.

One of the agency's media departments used its influence to get umpteen free spots on all the commercial TV networks and ad space in national newspapers. The campaign was launched during Schizophrenia Awareness Week (2002). It made a positive impact with the public, so much so the campaign continued the following year. It also went on to win a number of international awards.

Fast forward to 2016, now at Headjam and again with zero budget, we co-designed with Rob Ramjan the "Do What You Can Do" campaign for the national body, the Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia (MIFA).

It's an understatement to say the media landscape had changed since 2002. To reach our audience, the general public, we created a social media campaign. We produced a video and used social media to encourage people to share the video and visit the campaign website where they could take a "truth or myth" quiz. It's there we debunked the myths about schizophrenia.

The video's message was about mental illness -- "One in five people you know will experience a mental illness" -- rather than directly mentioning schizophrenia. The strategy was based on our knowledge of the broader Australian community's views on mental illness, and recognising they were more likely to share a general mental illness message than one mentioning schizophrenia.

A tiny media spend of $3000 on social media achieved the best results ever, according to Rob Ramjan. It is brilliant to get feedback like that. So why am I writing an opinion piece about pro bono campaigns not working and providing some successful stories of the most impactful campaigns on which I have collaborated?

Well, 99% of pro bono campaigns should not exist. The examples mentioned above, which had some impact, represent 1%. Unfortunately, organisations have a pattern of behavior whereby they segment campaigns into bite-sized pieces instead of briefing agencies on the real and large and problems they face. It perpetuates the problems. There is a sense that "we couldn't possibly ask someone to tackle the whole problem, so let's just ask company A to do this part (maybe a website) and we'll ask company B to do this part (maybe a video)" all at reduced or next-to-no costs. They are sharing the burden, right? Well, no, and this is where it is wrong.

By briefing out smaller, segmented projects they are perpetuating the issue, creating greater confusion and diluting communication in the marketplace. With smaller budgets we need to be fundamentally smarter.

If we as an industry take on pro bono pieces, then take on the whole damn thing. Truly solve the problems, treat them like a real paying client, advise them as such, and don't take on short-cut approaches to the work.

If I could go back 20 years to advise myself at the time of my first pro bono campaign it would be to focus my energy perpetually into one thing, as opposed to multiple things over time.

I find myself in the situation where 20 years has passed and the cold, hard reality is we haven't even begun to scratch the surface on this issue. This is because we have worked on campaigns in silos, away from the broader organisational communication -- a campaign here and a campaign there. With this approach there is rarely a serious amount of money to spend on a media budget to support the creative work (no matter how many awards it wins) and therefore it won't get in front of people.

At the time of writing we will no longer take on pro bono projects, no matter how hard that may be personally, unless they are backed by a significant contribution to distributing the work we do through paid or earned media, or we are able to work across the organisation's whole communication strategy and implementation.

At Headjam, we implore our peers in Australia to do the same in the hope that this will educate those in decision-making roles in effectively running a successful campaign and achieving long-term goals.

Do more by doing less.

For those of us who do give our time outside of day-to-day work, let's stop spending hundreds of hours on ineffective projects, and focus on the ones that can make a difference, the ones that are seriously backed and have the possibility to make the largest impact.

Sounds simple ... I'm sure there are many of you out there who, like us, will find this hard.

If you are interested in helping us distribute our latest mental health awareness campaign you can make a difference by visiting http://www.dowhatyoucando.com.au/ taking the quiz and sharing it with as many people as possible.

You'll also find information on schizophrenia and other mental illnesses and contact details of mental health organisations.

Thanks for reading.


Mike, I applaud you for your comments on the topic of pro bono work, especially with regards to non-profits or other broader issues that affect the community. It would seem "the thrill of the chase" is too strong a lure for many, who are more than happy to create work that will get buzz within the industry, yet drone to nothingness in the public sphere.

As you allude to, work created shouldn't exist in a vacuum if one wants to change anything. A broader look at the problem and what strategies could work based on their budget is need.

Band-aid 'fixes' on a problem that has a deeper root cause, such as lack of awareness or willful ignorance on the part of the audience, do nothing over the long-term.

I think this 'short-termism' is a problem with the marketing industry in general at the moment, regardless of whether it's pro bono or not.

Another thing to consider: I've often found there's a lack of understanding with the client in terms of short- vs. long-term planning simply based on what they're seeing themselves in the market.

Sure, that's our job to somewhat educate so everyone's "on the same page", but we should be doing that by example with the campaigns we produce so the talk doesn't happen in the first place!

Scrupulous marketeer said:


ian said:

scrupulous marketeer,I would suggest that you are the pessimist, criticising someone with enormous wisdom who wants to make a contribution.

@ian said:

I agree with Scrupulous marketeer.

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