When advertising agency Leo Burnett launched a campaign in 2005 in search of a pro bono client, the move confirmed a growing reality: such clients have become a must-have "accessory" in advertising.
What is pro bono? The dictionary definition is "done for the public good without compensation". In other words, agencies "adopt" charities and good causes for free.
Though the trend is not new, in recent years there's been an increased interest from creative agencies in taking up such work. In part, it's due to pressure to position themselves as responsible corporate citizens. But there's also the attraction of being able to indulge in the kind of adventurous work paying clients might not approve.
Global communications firms such as WPP and Publicis profile pro bono activities in their annual reports. They mention who they've helped, at what cost to company, and show the results of their creative efforts.
In the case of WPP, which owns agency groups such as Y&R and Grey SA, it says it contributed £12,8m of resources to pro bono work in 2008. The figure is based on what its group of companies would have made had they charged the organisations. New York-listed Publicis, home to Leo Burnett, estimated its pro bono work to be worth US$50m.
Rob McLennan, head of the SA Creative Circle, says doing good is "infiltrating" advertising. "I think any agency that's doing pro bono work does it with the proper belief that it is doing good, and it is making a difference." That's the primary reason. But it's also a well-documented fact that agencies also do this for the recognition. The more recognisable the pro bono client, the better for the agency as the association brings added prestige to its creative reputation.
Leo Burnett USA admitted to this when it pulled its stunt four years ago. The agency said while having a pro bono client was its way of contributing to its civic responsibilities, the association would also help it showcase its creative capabilities. The freedom to experiment is a powerful attraction.
"They provide areas of relief in a highly commercialised marketing environment," says McLennan. "This is good for the creatives because it motivates them." Results speak for themselves.
Some of the greatest advertising campaigns of the past few years were pro bono.
There was Saatchi & Saatchi Australia's "United Nations Voices" campaign for the UN Information Centre in Canberra, which scooped a series of international awards for its innovative use of outdoor posters, print and online elements featuring people in need.
Locally, Net#work BBDO's "Kings & Queens" campaign for Childline comes to mind. The TV commercial features an abused little boy rescued by his toys. They carry him asleep to the nearest public telephone, where he calls for help. The advert also features a catchy tune by popular hip-hop outfit Skwatta Kamp, about children being the kings and queens of tomorrow.
Do organisations care that they are seen to be used by agencies to up their creativity credentials? Not at all, says Lynne Cawood, director at Childline Gauteng. The children's services organisation has been Net#work BBDO's pro bono client for 10 years, and says such awards also gets it publicity. That is important when asking for donations and funding.
"When we started with Net#work, we were a scruffy little organisation struggling to get resources to respond to the increasing number of calls we were getting from children. Net#work helped build us into a huge organisation in terms of perception. They do our marketing and branding. In the NGO sector, to attract funding, you have to be out there, you have to be known."
Sian Gutstadt, national marketing & advertising officer for Reach for a Dream, whose advertising agency is TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris Johannesburg, says the reality is that charities have become very competitive. "It's not a nice thing to say but it's true." Therefore the more creatively recognised the ad agency, the better for the charity organisations associated with it.
There is a debate in the industry about which is more valuable: donations or time and skills. The industry seems to believe in the latter. "The first thing you need to realise with agencies is that they are reluctant to put a hand in the pocket," McLennan says. "They would rather give their intellectual property, which I think is better because it benefits the organisation more. I don't think that will ever change."
However, there are dangers in using pro bono work to create adventurous advertising. Draftfcb SA CEO John Dixon says it sometimes appears that agencies embark on corporate social investments and pro bono work as platforms to create "scam" work. That is, work designed specifically to win creative awards and recognition even though it may not be seen by the public at large.
But McLennan, who's also executive creative director at Net#work BBDO, disagrees. He says recent rule changes governing awards discourage agencies from submitting scam work.
"When you're doing public service work, people perceive you as not having the same barriers to entry as you would when doing it for a paying client. Therefore, it's become more difficult to win awards in those categories. Though agencies may still enter, they now don't expect to win."
That's not the only benefit agencies have come to discover from pro bono work. According to research titled "Sustainable Social Enterprise" presented at the 2009 International Non-Profit & Social Marketing Conference, creative firms have another reason for choosing pro bono clients carefully. Some see certain charities as an opportunity to make an impression in the right circles. This is because charity board members may include captains of industries who can refer business to agencies.
But Gutstadt believes agencies are generally genuine in their desire to help. Her organisation, whose core purpose is to fulfil the dreams of disadvantaged or terminally ill children, has been TBWA's pro bono client for almost 20 years. The agency does all its below- and above-the-line advertising. It recently gave its logo a make-over.
Gutstadt describes the relationship as one of mutual respect. "We speak to them at least once a week. We have a strong relationship with them and John Hunt (agency cofounder) gets involved in our brand-storming sessions.
"We also sign off every campaign."
She admits such a relationship is not always a given. "We've had other agencies on board in the past who treated us as pro bono clients that can't moan or complain just because we were not paying. You see it in other services."
Paul Middleton, MD of the Ebony+ Ivory agency, which does pro bono work for the Boikanyo Foundation, says agencies have learnt pro bono clients are just as demanding as paying clients, which makes timing and capacity all the more essential. Chemistry is also very important. "You also have to feel it."
But with the recession affecting the advertising industry, and agencies under pressure to focus on paying clients, this is likely to have an impact on pro bono projects, says McLennan. "The biggest pressure we have now is time. In a recession, accounts tend to change hands more and clients demand more work for less."
Middleton says agencies that are genuinely committed to making a change will find ways to do so. "It can be low-key. Once a week I do a free job either at the local school or church.
"You have to have your heart in the right place. If you don't, doing it is going to bite."