Anita Davis
Jun 15, 2010

Pro bono campaigns offer fulfilling work for agencies, but should they work for free?

With an abundance of nonprofit organisations, from women's rights in China, to clean air in Cambodia, Asia's ad agencies have the opportunity to create some of the most socially meaningful advertising and marketing campaigns worldwide.

Pro bono campaigns offer fulfilling work for agencies, but should they work for free?
While there may still be elements of scam associated with pro bono work - with agencies undertaking the work they've always wanted to create without the pressure of paying clients - much of this comes from genuine sources.

In the past, creative agencies always had the option of working for environmental or human rights staples, but now pro-bono has expanded to include topics such as art programmes for elementary schools. Mark Ringer, ECD of TBWA Hong Kong says the agency - which recently launched a preventative-blindness awareness campaign for Orbis - has created several pro bono campaigns in the past 18 months, for names such as Make- A-Wish, as well as a more off-beat project for the Macanese band Soler, which sought exposure for its music. When deciding which clients to take on, Ringer says it's an easy process: TBWA tries not to say no to any group that approaches them, as long as staff are willing to put in the extra hours to work on a campaign for free.

But if an agency approaches a client to do pro bono work, is that an indication they're in it for awards season? Not necessarily, says Mirjam Sidik, executive director of the nonprofit Asia Injury Prevention Foundation, who ran a crash helmet-awareness campaign last year after Ogilvy Vietnam approached them. In terms of effectiveness, the campaign ran on national and local TV, billboards in Vietnam's major cities, outdoor ads on buses and online banners.

There might, however, be a problem in markets where there is a surplus of demand. Sidik notes that she has heard of organisations in Cambodia that have difficultly finding an agency to work on no budget. And the process of creating work for free may also be more tedious for clients, as they might not get the expediency they seek nor the input they desire.

Public relations work is one of the more popular pro bono requests. Grayling, for example, recently organised an event for the Animals Asia Foundation, which takes care of bears in Chinese farms, while McCann Healthcare - traditionally a healthcare-focused creative agency - is working with the World Health Organisation and the Japanese Ministry of Health to launch world No-Tobacco Day. PR initiatives are valued because they can be far less expensive than advertising and media campaigns, making the work more manageable, as long as staff are willing to volunteer their time.

In the media world, advertising sources say most of the inventory used to broadcast ads is donated. In terms of print, sales reps will generally see what space is left over once magazines and newspapers are laid out, and for radio and TV, unsold airtime can also be given to worthy groups. What these nonprofit organisations do have to pay for is the production costs of ads and other third-party work, which can often be obtained at a wholesale price once production houses understand what the work represents.

Industry comments

Mirjam Sidik, executive director at Asia Injury Prevention Foundation:
"Since 2005, AIP Foundation has worked with Ogilvy & Mather Vietnam to develop public awareness campaigns to encourage people to wear crash helmets. Ogilvy worked on a pro-bono basis, and the service they provided went far beyond just creating art - our partnership created a change in social behaviour and saved countless lives in Vietnam. We developed a 360 degree campaign including TV, print, outdoor, internet and community events. The Vietnamese government disseminated campaign material to all 64 provinces and the campaign contributed to the successful enforcement of Vietnam's helmet law."

Mark Ringer, executive creative director at TBWA/Tequila Hong Kong:
"There have never been more issues facing humanity and clever people are desperately required to solve them. So our industry has never been a more valuable resource.

In the past two years, TBWA has brought the AIDS Concern campaign to Hong Kong from our Paris office, expanded it and hosted the press conference. We created the Make-A-Wish global print campaign and recently launched the campaign for Orbis (treating preventable blindness).

Then there's Room 13 that we've just opened in Hong Kong. It's a room for art within impoverished schools, without teachers, run by the students and an artist-in-residence. There's much to do."

Bruce Shu, managing director at Grayling China:
"We try to do pro bono work in every market. It's about team building and contributing. It's not for recognition or marketing purposes.

We work for the Animals Asia Foundation, which rescues and cares for bears from farms in China where they are kept for their bile. A collector of contemporary Chinese art is giving a big donation to the foundation from proceeds from an auction at Christies. This is an opportunity to draw attention to the bears' plight. PR can make a big difference. Since it's our team that decides on and carries out projects, the commitment and output are as good as when we're working for a paying customer."

Paul Gardner, group chairman at Grey Group Australia & New Zealand:
"The first type of pro-bono is that which we choose ourselves. It is generally local and helps establish or reinforce a culture and allows us to push creative boundaries. The second type is something we have thrust upon us by clients or our overseas partners. It is often difficult to motivate the staff to the same extent as the first type of pro-bono. The third type is done because everybody else is doing it and generally follows a large natural disaster.

At Grey Group, we have done all three types of pro-bono work and are proud of not the ads, but the results that have made people's lives a bit easier, safer, cleaner, and more comfortable."

Got a view?
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This article was originally published in the 3 June 2010 issue of Media.

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