A strange, old-fashioned plea for respect
The posturing of charities and agencies should cease if the two parties are to talk to each other.
- Written by
- George Smith
- May 14, 2014
It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a charity in possession of a few bob must be in want of a consultant, agency, water diviner, shaman, guru, or some such extra source of wisdom and fee.
It is a strange relationship that is sometimes created by this convention. Part deferential, part hesitant and suspicious, part hapless – the average charity regards its average supplier with a rich mixture of attitudes. It vests enormous aspirations in these relationships, works hard at selecting the right partners, then gets a little unruly when a few wheels come off.
I’d better declare an interest. I run an advertising agency, a rather nice and jolly one as a matter of fact and one with a few fundraising motifs on its escutcheon. But I am reporting from a wider world than the one viewed from downtown Kennington. For my IFRW [now IFC] hat seems to confer a somewhat above-it-all dignity in such matters. Clients and suppliers alike confide in me. They give me straighter gossip that I deserve. And I’m a bit restless about some of the venomous banter I hear. It smacks of the advertising jungle; and it is well worth avoiding if you have any feeling for what a charity, as opposed to a machine tools manufacturer, should be doing.
Venomous banter? Yes, really. I don’t like hearing that Thingy up at the Greater London Fund for the Stoned is a time-wasting old git who’s never at his fax after four in the afternoon. Or that Acme Direct are an over-priced bunch of wallies where you get a new account man every time the moon waxes. Even making allowances for the need to score points, we should be able to do better than this.
I’m arguing for a little more respect around here. As a man of the world, I don’t expect perpetual relationships between the suppliers and the supplied. Falling out of love is known to be as commonplace as its antecedent and none of us stay moony forever. Even so…
It all starts with imprecision. Imprecision of motive, imprecision of language, imprecision of need. That’s the client’s fault and it’s a fault often compounded by the suppliers posturing beyond their rightful means. It is a recipe for grief.
I lean to the humblest view of the supply side. I cannot speak for the consultants, though I have increasing difficulty in explaining to people that I am not one. But I can tell you what an advertising agency does. It produces creative work and ideas better than the charity can and quicker. It buys media space and mailing lists more surely than the charity can. Sometimes it can buy print cheaper or offer database consultancy, but we are already wandering off the mainstream agenda. In others words, an agency is a simple thing. It does things that the charity cannot do quite as well. Over and out.
About 10 years ago the client class decided that it needed something a little more elevated than such tradecraft. It needed (dread phrase!) ‘input’. This imprecise expression conferred something mystical on the relationship, a belief that you were buying not just the tradecraft but also a whole scad of received wisdom. And a generation of received wisdom was invented overnight – a demand and supply, I guess.
The trouble with received wisdom is that it blots out original thought. And the trouble with over-deference to other people’s received wisdom is that you tend to cop out of your own duty to be wise. This is why too many good people waste time arguing about the wrong things – I care less about the statistical propriety of the cell tests, more about whether the bloody mailing gets out next week. But such brawness of motive is maybe old-fashioned; it is barely input.
But then I am a simple soul. I want people to argue more – about words and pictures and timings and ideas and invoices. I want them to wind each other up, to question the long words, to congratulate each other, to share the occasional nemesis as well as the even more occasional hubris. I hate the idea that people are sullenly sitting through presentation-room rituals, passive and unquestioning, ready to backbite just as soon as the ritual is over.
The mores of advertising were bound to invade the culture of fundraising. But there are signs that the host culture is being swamped. By which I do not mean that fundraising is all nice and advertising is all nasty. What I do mean is that most advertising is pretty silly and that all fundraising is pretty damned important. We would do well to dwell on the difference.