Why pro bono campaigns are often counterproductive to the desired outcome

It may seem like a great idea for charities and not-for-profits to have creative and communication experts prepare a campaign free of charge. 

And, let’s be honest, many people in the industry here in the Hunter and further afield, provide their expertise free of charge because they are passionate about the cause and their community. 

Over the years I have provided my time pro bono for countless projects in the area of mental health.

That was until last year when I realised, while attending the Mental Health Services conference, that pro bono campaigns just don’t work.

In 2002 while working at Clemenger BBDO, I had a chance conversation with colleague Jo Kouvaris while standing outside 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 offered our services and those of Clemenger BBDO, to the only schizophrenia support organisation that at the time was listed in the Yellow and White pages, the Schizophrenia Fellowship of NSW.

With a production budget of zero, Jeremy Southern and myself  came up with a simple, easy-to-produce campaign idea.

It consisted of three television commercials, a series of posters, press ads and postcards that would help people understand and be aware of the early warning sign of schizophrenia.

Clemenger BBDO’s media departments used its influence to get free spots on all the commercial television networks and ad space in national newspapers.

The campaign was launched during Schizophrenia Awareness Week (2002).

It made a positive impact with the public, continued the following year, and won 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 Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia.

It’s an understatement to say the media landscape had changed since 2002.

We produced a video and used social media to encourage people to share it and visit the campaign website where they could take a  “truth or myth” quiz.

It’s there we debunked the myths about schizophrenia.

A tiny media spend on social media and we achieved the best results ever, according to Rob Ramjan. 

At a mental health conference in 2018 I had the honour of co-presenting with Rob Ramjan, chief executive One Door Metal Health previously the Schizophrenia Fellowship NSW.

We spoke about our 16-year collaboration that we felt was having some impact on mental health awareness.

So why am I anti pro bono campaigns?

The examples mentioned above that actually deliver some impact sadly represent just 1 per cent.

Organisations tend to segment campaigns into bite-sized pieces instead of briefing agencies on the real and big picture issue that they face.

This is mostly about them not wanting to ask for large amounts of work for free. Understandable logic, but unfortunately counterproductive to the desired outcome. 

What then transpires is that a number of agencies are tasked with bits of work, say the website, a campaign on social media, a video, a public affairs campaign or so on.

One might say that they are sharing the burden. In fact this is where it goes wrong.

By briefing smaller, segmented projects the organisation is creating greater confusion and diluting communication in the marketplace.

This is by no means a criticism of the quality of work or indeed the results that small pieces of creative work can provide

I look back over 16 years and the reality is that we haven’t begun to scratch the surface on the issue of mental illness, especially schizophrenia.

We have worked on campaigns in silos. They are not consistent and the small budgets, if any, do not allow for the campaigns to be resourced.

The reality is that we haven’t begun to scratch the surface on the issue of mental illness, especially schizophrenia.

Mike Preston (pictured)

We need to educate our friends in charity and not for profit community organisations that a successful campaign must also achieve long-term goals. We must stop spending hundreds of hours on ineffective projects, and focus on the ones that can make a difference.

Do more by doing less.

World Mental Health Day is October 10, 2018.

Mike Preston is Principal – Executive Creative Director of Newcastle creative agency Headjam. He is an award winning professional who through his own family circumstances is a strong and passionate advocate for mental health awareness campaigns.