George Smith: working with suppliers, part two

Written by
George Smith
May 22, 2011

Meetings, bloody meetings

Beware of letting your meetings become tiresome rituals.

I always used to say that meetings were what you were doing when you weren’t working. They remain the regular ceremonial of the client/supplier relationship and a terrifying abuse of everyone’s precious time. The average fundraiser now spends most of his/her time in meetings. Everyone knows there are too many meetings, no one does anything about it. This is why commuter trains are now full of people working – they have been in meetings all day.

The achievement of a meeting is often a poor return on the cost of assembling the audience. For many of the people at a meeting usually form an audience – they contribute little except their presence, they make simultaneous notes in similar notebooks, they nod and smile.

Office diplomacy and personal sensitivities are usually responsible for swelling the meeting audience. Benjy needs to be there if Sharon is invited and Malcolm from planning needs to be there in case Wendy from donor development says anything daft.

All I can suggest is wariness in the face of this familiar phenomenon, for meetings have a habit of multiplying like rabbits. And meetings cost money. If the charge-out rates of six agency people are £60 an individual hour, then the actual cost of having all of them in a whole-day meeting is over £2,500. Match these numbers with a client team and you are evoking an event that somehow is costing the charity thousands of pounds. Was it worth it?

At least work out the terms of reference of a meeting and be prepared to admit that they are not working cost-effectively, or that they could work better. Otherwise they merely become a ritual and a tiresome one. A well-planned monthly meeting, punctuated by regular personal communication in between and with an explicit set of objectives, should be all you need. Always find room in these meetings for some liberated discussion on what might be rather than what is. A meeting should be able to explore new ideas as well as monitor existing ones.

If creative work is to be discussed, the creative team members should always be there. They should always receive a brief direct and always have the responsibility of explaining themselves and their work when the ideas are presented. Account managers will always do this diffidently and imperfectly, no matter how good a sales technique they may have acquired.

Above all, insist that both parties prepare properly for meetings. There is nothing worse than a ritual gathering of senior people where no one has read carefully produced papers (or had no time to) and where everyone flounders for three hours to sustain the ceremony.

How to approve creative work

Avoid the subjectivity trap when approving copy.


Most clients agonise over creative work. They feel a responsibility to worry about every nuance of the mailing pack or the ad, to declaim a point of view lest their client-hood is seen to be less than virile. The psychology of a meeting is such that people start agreeing with meaningless points of view. A whole negative and useless momentum starts. It is rarely productive or helpful. It goes like this.

Senior client: I like it a lot, but I’m not quite comfortable with this headline. And I think the pictures could be larger.

Less-than-senior client: I think I agree with that. Actually I think we could have chosen better pictures.

Really smart junior client: And there’s no mention of our new policy on community development. Was this deliberate on the part of the agency?

Agency hack: Er…, er...

Senior client: I certainly think that community development should be in. And we should make more of GiftAid as well. Come to think of it, it’s very big isn’t it?

Less-than-senior client: Just what I was going to say. I think it’s too big, much too big. And do we really need the second colour?

And so it goes. The client would be more helpful if he or she just said, ’I don’t like it. Do it again’. Posturing and role-playing rarely make a positive contribution to good creative work. I think of the long lost client who would narrow his eyes every time he was presented with a visual and say, ‘Now, what is this envelope really saying to me?’ It was the sort of thing he thought he ought to say. In fact it marked him out as a complete prat.

Anyone approving creative work has only three questions to answer,

1. Is it accurate?

2. Is it on brief?

3. Does it coincide with the budget for the job?

All the rest is subjectivity. And there is little point in trading subjectvity with people you have hired to do a specialist job. If the doctor diagnoses an ailment and prescribes a course of antibiotics, you do not question the judgement and engage the quack in endless discussions about whether the ailment might really be mumps rather than a broken ankle. If the lawyer suggests a certain course of legal action you do not idly demand a treatise on case law precedent. No one should pretend that the professionalism of the agency hack is in the same class as these worthier trades, but fundraising suppliers do deserve a version of the same trust. As I say, if they do not prove that they deserve the trust, fire them.

For they are not always right. And they are not always successful. But the client always has the power to rectify this situation. Believe me, all I’m trying to do here is to save you time.

But suppliers posture too

I have already begun to personify the supplier as the sort of advertising agency with which I am most familiar. There are other breeds. You will probably need them – list brokers, database specialists, corporate design firms, maybe media buyers.

Don’t let your suppliers posture beyond their means. A full-service agency will boast creative, production and media departments, but even this panoply of experience may not always meet your needs sufficiently. Does the media department have experience in broadcast media for example? Can the production department deal with complex print formats? Be prepared to ask these needling questions and hire additional suppliers if the answers are less than convincing.

Suppliers do not know everything and should not be allowed to pretend that they do. It is likely that your database expertise will be superior to the supplier’s. It is likely that the specialist art of telephone fundraising demands a specialist supplier; as will face to face; similarly with reciprocal mailings. Agencies can coordinate these functions, can buy these services for you. But they are not the prime sources of supply.

And apply the same worldliness the other way around. Don’t let smaller suppliers pretend that they are generalists. A mailing house proffering creative services usually has a freelance team on occasional tap. A list broker who claims expertise in above-the-line media buying usually has a mate at a friendly agency. Very few suppliers are prepared to admit technical inadequacy. Show them a budget figure and they have an awful habit of slavering at the noughts.

The two cultures

I offer you a paradox: charities change more continuously and profoundly than suppliers.

The supplier toils on year after year, doing broadly the same things in the same way. The client list grows or refines but, in these troubling times, staff turnover is a lot less than it used to be.

It is the charities that have become more volatile.

Staff turnover has become marked in the last few years as salary levels have increased dramatically throughout the sector. Reorganisation and restructuring seem to be a permanent factor in many charities – one year’s decentralisation followed by another year’s centralisation. Regional fundraising reports to the director of communications, then it reports to the new regional fundraising director, then the regional fundraising director becomes the deputy director of communications with special new responsibilities for public relations (regional) and education (national). Does this sound familiar?

Then there is the computer system, which is always perennially outmoded in any charity I have ever known. A new system is coming on stream next year. A new system is always coming on stream every year. Yours too?

Even the priorities of the organisation can change dramatically, usually as a result of a working party that produces a report with a big title like ‘Toward the Millennium: A Mid-Term Strategy plan for the XYZ Fund’. This is entirely proper, for a charity should examine what it is doing on a regular basis. All I can ask is that charities try to explain all such changes to their suppliers. For it is they who seem forever in flux and not the suppliers.

Sue Wilkinson of the National Trust gave me a wonderful quote on all this.

We trained hard; but it seems that every time we were beginning to form into teams, we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.

Did I hear you say ‘ouch’?

I didn’t say it. Gaius Petronius said it. In 66 AD.

© 2011 The White Lion Press Limited

This article is reprinted with the author’s permission from Asking Properly: the art of creative fundraising by George Smith, available from the White Lion Press Limited ( price £24.00 plus p&p.

About the author: George Smith

George Smith

The late George Smith (he/him) wrote his first fundraising ad for Oxfam in 1962. In his twenties he was appointed European coordinator for a major-league American advertising agency and, in contrast, was elected as a local councillor in an inner-London borough. He formed the Smith Bundy direct marketing agency in 1973 and served as chief executive for 20 years. During those two decades his copywriting skills were applied to many diverse commercial direct marketing clients, yet fundraising was always a specialism. In 1990 he was awarded the UK’s DMA Gold Award for work on Greenpeace.

Between 1987 and 1993 George was chief executive of the International Fund Raising Group, responsible for the celebrated Noordwijkerhout conference and a growing number of events around the world. He was also a director of Burnett Associates Limited. His monthly articles in Britain’s Direct Response magazine were published in 1987 as a collection called By George. He became chairman of the UK’s Institute of Direct Marketing (IDM) in 1997 and is an honorary fellow both of the IDM and the Chartered Institute of Fundraising.

George Smith also wrote Asking ProperlyTiny Essentials of Writing for Fundraising and Up Smith Creek.

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