George Smith as oth­ers see him

Written by
April 30, 2010
George Smith, who died aged 71, was the leading creative communicator for socially worthwhile causes in Britain and an inspiration to aspiring marketers and copywriters everywhere. He was also a legend among direct marketers, fundraisers and just about everyone who yearns to make the world a better place.

From a former colleague who doesn't want the comments attributed. 'Elsewhere on the SOFII website there is a warm tribute to three former giants of fundraising – Sumption, Kirkley and Stringer. It speaks, among much else, of their ability to unleash the energies of their younger colleagues. What it omits to say is that its writer, George Smith, was the most energetic and imaginative of those colleagues and that he changed fundraising practice forever.

'In 2009 an executive on a charity account can follow well-worn creative strategies and media plans from behind a desk. But when George started there were no rules, no textbooks, no focus groups. George could be found at a rain-swept rally in Trafalgar Square alongside leading political figures of the day, or joining volunteers stuffing envelopes at Oxfam's HQ, immersing himself in the reality of charitable giving and receiving. It helped that Oxfam in those days was a crusade and George a natural crusader, a left-wing idealist who believed in action rather than gesture.

'His trademark was utter clarity of communicative language, allied to innovative ideas. The charity donor pool was then small and mostly over middle age, their motivation principally faith-based. So George pioneered ways to reach people who had no tradition of giving, tapping into the decade's optimism for making a better world.

'Charity TV advertising was barred and UK commercial radio unborn. Instead he turned to the popular offshore Radio Luxembourg and created Oxfam's own half-hour hit record show – the kind of music he and everyone his age listened to. Cinema advertising followed (a medium that many UK charities are only now re-discovering) and initiatives like the brilliantly designed Oxfamily box, a tabletop collection box for the home (see exhibit). Volunteers all over Britain delivered millions. This was nearly 50 years ago, but George has been doing the same thing ever since: getting a response by knowing how to ask.

'He has always been ready to acknowledge that he stood on the shoulders of giants, but never, ever, that he is a giant of fundraising himself.'

From Lyndall Stein, friend and former client.

'There's something about George.

'Well there is just something about George… There are people you learn from, people you respect, people who are creative and people who make you laugh, but not all at the same time. That's the remarkable thing about George – he knows so much stuff, has got such a good brain, such determination and integrity, but it's all wrapped up in a person who is fundamentally humble, generous, loyal and totally without pretension. Best of all, he can poke fun at himself and puncture pomposity and ponciness better than most.'

From Terry Hunt, CEO at Customer & Co, president of the Institute of Direct Marketing, friend and former colleague. In 2005 Terry was cited byMarketing Direct magazine as the 'most powerful individual in the UK direct marketing industry'.

'George has been a great friend for 30 years, but he's more that. He's been my teacher since the first day I met him. Not a know-it-all pedant, but a real teacher. He taught me about writing, about marketing, about fundraising, about running a business and about how to stay true to your values and yourself even when times are tough. He teaches by challenging and encouraging. He teaches with jokes, literary quotes and anecdotes. And like all true teachers, the rare ones, he genuinely enjoys seeing his students succeed.'

From Carol Trickey, friend and former partner at Smith Bundy.

'Paul Rowney's D Notice. In the lead- up to the 1984 general election Paul Rowney thought it would be interesting to publish an article in hisDirect Response magazine about how the three main political parties parties were using direct mail to communicate with the electorate. Knowing this was a subject close to George's heart, he asked him to take charge of the exercise, which he did. Roger Millington was commissioned to write about the Lib Dems, Glenmore Trenear-Harvey about the Tories and George the Labour Party. He then edited the whole article and sent it off to Paul for publication.

In the meantime George had received a perfectly innocuous letter from the UK Government's Home Office about something completely unrelated, which was where the germ of the idea of the prank was born.

In a matter of a couple of hours we had reproduced a magnificent blank Home Office letterhead upon which George wrote in faultless civil service speak to tell Paul Rowney that it had come to the Home Office's attention that a 'political' article had been published that contravened the Official Secrets Act. They were therefore serving Paul with a D Notice (a government instruction prohibiting publication, in the public interest).

It was a piece of A5 paper with a big 'D' in red on the background which told him that to avoid his entire production of the offending publication from being destroyed he had to report with the notice to Hertford Police Station within 24 hours. Well, of course, he did.

Suffice it to say that the first telephone call received by George the next morning started with you bastard!'

From Chris Barraclough, chairman at digital and direct marketing agency BEC, friend and former colleague.

'George gave me my first proper job, so he has a lot to answer for! George is one of the most brilliant and inspirational people I have ever worked with. Not just bright and informed but challenging and provocative in an entirely positive way. He has always played an invaluable role in pricking the pomposity and pretension that often infects the charity world. And when he recommends something, he is invariably proved right, whether the organisation chooses to follow his advice or not. And he is funny, very funny. Which is probably a rare quality amongst the great and good.'

From Margaret Bennett, former head of fundraising at WWF and now director of THINK Consulting Solutions, friend, former client and colleague.

'George was a mentor to me during my early years in fundraising. He combines knowledge, experience, smart thinking and creativity with "telling it like it is" – an irresistible combination.

'I first met George when he came to see me at WWF to "pitch" Smith Bundy as a potential agency. At that time, I was so fed up with agencies pretending they were expert marketers that I had devised a "trip-up" question in which I made a plausible case for a particular action, but that anyone with marketing knowledge would know was unsound. When I did my spiel with George he looked me straight in the eye and said "With respect, Margaret, you know that's rubbish". We never looked back.

My favourite recruitment concept that George came up with for me at WWF was an early form of door-to-door recruitment, in which scary looking WWF staff knocked on people's doors and demanded "give us your money – or the panda gets it!" Strangely, we couldn't quite get that one past the trustees.'

From John Hambley, writer, producer, formerly a senior executive in UK television, friend and former colleague.

'…has it been mentioned that his zeal for innovation included founding his own cricket team in the 1970s? It was called Endymion Cricket Club after the street in which George then lived, lasted for many years and luminaries such as Mr Burnett played for it. Being George, he only rarely chose to captain it but played regularly. I'm told that he sometimes startled interviewees for jobs with Smith Bundy by asking "Do you bowl leg spin?" as his opening question.'

From Ken Burnett, author, managing trustee at the SOFII Foundation, friend and former colleague.

'A couple from the many things I like about George.
'His utter irreverence – George never tires of taking the proverbial out of any and every situation, fearlessly deflating egos and puncturing pomposities as he goes. He always challenges conventional approaches and so breaking the mould is for him routine.
His considerable skill with words – George taught me much about communicating wisely with words to convey meaning concisely and precisely for a carefully conceived end. That in essence is what fundraising communication should be all about, but so rarely is. It's a constant delight to hear George rail against how carelessly and inappropriately others (mainly young people, the bastards, but inconsiderate oldies too) use or rather misuse words. His indefatigable enthusiasm for this theme is hugely impressive.'

From Jon Allen, co-founder Stuff & Sense creative marketing and communications, friend and former colleague.

'George Smith created a job for me. I'd been fired by an advertising agency for writing a successful directing marketing ad. I was an account person and the creative department were too busy doing TV commercials so I wrote and art directed something myself. Its success ensured the creative director forced me out.

'The agency's chairman was Harold Sumption; he rang George and said that I was someone he ought to meet. There was no vacancy at Smith Bundy, but George very kindly agreed to see me, gave me a copy test that was as much about common sense and marketing as words.

'He gave me a job and I sat at a table in his office while he taught me to craft copy on a manual typewriter. He was extraordinarily patient and a generous teacher. The very first job I did won a BDMA award – largely because of George's guidance and input. George is a sound moral compass. A few years into my time at Smith Bundy I was contacted by an art director working for the African National Congress to donate some time to help with a press ad when Nelson Mandela was in prison for terrorism. I believed in the cause, but necklacing and a few other issues made me agonise, but not for long. George simply said, "Do it. If we were in South Africa we'd both be ANC supporters."

'I stayed at Smith Bundy for six years. At a job interview after I had decided I had to leave, I was criticised as being "over loyal". I was incensed. George inspires loyalty in people. I still work regularly with three people from those days. Despite all the new media available to use, we are all still doing things the Smith Bundy way. That's to say the George Smith way, the proper way.'

From Peter Trickey, friend and former classmate.

'George was in my class at the Oliver Goldsmith Junior Mixed School, Peckham, London SE15 in 1950-51. I was 11 and he was 10. Being of superior intelligence, he had been put up one year ahead of his contemporaries and so had to spend two years in the top class, class one.

'I have two memories that demonstrate that his skill with words was evident even then.

'1. During a lesson, the teacher decided that we would start a class-one newspaper with everybody contributing a weekly article on local or school matters. When asked for suggestions as to what to call the paper a few put their hands up with mundane offerings such as Class-One News, Class One Express, etc. George's suggestion was Class-One Digest. As far as the rest of us were concerned this had something to do with stomachs.

'2. In the summer many of us were sent off on a school journey to Swanage, including me. At school, those who remained were tasked in an English lesson with writing to someone in Swanage. I received four or five letters, most dutifully hoping that I was having a good time, the food was OK, etc. The one from George included the phrase, "I trust that you are enjoying clement weather".'

From Derek Humphries, formerly MD at Burnett Associates, now director at DTV, friend and former colleague.

'When I randomly applied for jobs in the Monday Guardian back in 1985, little did I know how lucky I would get. Recruited by Ken Burnett and trained by George Smith. Talk about landing on my feet. George gave me the confidence to write the way I wanted to, rather than just imitate others. His 'Power of Words' seminar changed my approach forever. I still draw on it every day. Still have the notes. I'd never realised that George Orwell and Cole Porter could have anything to do with writing inspirational fundraising copy, but they do. George remains the best copywriter I've ever read.

'I recall the famous legacy letter that he wrote for the RNLI (see exhibit). It became known simply as George's letter. It got thrown out of the UK DMA awards one year; I suspect because I'd quoted its return on investment as 16,000 to 1. Which was true.

'My early trips to the IFC in Holland were marked by George's late-night wordplay in 'the alcove'. Much whisky fuelled our attempts to recall bands that had fish in their name – or whatever delightfully nonsensical challenges George invented. And then there was George on stage. In full rant: mocking the pompous, challenging inertia, championing creativity. Stirring stuff.'

Roger Millington, former competitor and long-time chum of George.

'When I was the creative director of one particular ad agency we had a remarkable success rate when pitching for new accounts. In a three-year period I don't think we ever lost a pitch. This was partly because before accepting an invitation to make a presentation, our managing director would instruct me, "Find out if your mate George Smith is in the running. I don't want to face competition from his agency … we don't want to lose against him and spoil our record".'

About the author: SOFII

The SOFII collection aims to be the most comprehensive, best organised, and most inspiring collection of fundraising related content from around the world.

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