Advertising is pointless. Almost.*

*This is a repost of Alice Walker’s article for BBH Labs, in which she shares her insights on what the nonprofit sector can learn from the world of advertising. Alice, who is a strategist at BBH London, has recently finished a TIE project with the Zambian NGO Barefeet Theatre. You can read more about her here.

My mother is a teacher. She teaches English as a second language to refugees and asylum seekers. People who have fled from shit knows where to come and seek a better life in this country. She gives them the gift of language so they can go on to forge new and better futures for themselves. So I decided to work in advertising. Because I really wanted to give something back, you know?

Everyone who works in advertising acknowledges the essential meaninglessness and slightly unsavoury nature of what we do. And if you don’t you’re probably an actual psychopath and/or work in SEO. Right now, a lot of us are ensconced in trying to turn a global pandemic, where literal people are literally dying, into a way to increase brand love for our clients. Or in the case of BMW, unapologetically flog some cars. It’s enough to make you want to stay indoors. Oh wait.

When the proper apocalypse finally does come, the adfolk will not be on that spaceship. The one with a quota of people with essential or valued jobs—the doctors, the builders, the entertainers—ready to jet off to build a new space utopia. We will be back down here on a burning earth, thinking up taglines and drinking the last of the booze.

Don’t get me wrong, this is why I love my job.

However, it turns out that a lot of what we do in advertising is applicable to all those people doing good out there as well.

I was, for some reason, seen as an appropriate person to send to Zambia to work with a charity called Barefeet Theatre for a month as part of The International Exchange (TIE), helping them to develop a long-term marketing strategy.

I saw my job there as getting an incredibly talented, warm and resourceful team who were passionate about improving children’s lives to behave more like a bunch of cold-blooded capitalists.

In fact, I think there are a lot of ways in which not-for-profits could benefit from being a bit more evil.

Here are just a few of my suggestions.

Focus less on helping people.

Charities exist to help people. Great. Every charity is, you hope, worthy of your money. So if you’re a charity making a proposal for funding from a corporation, how do you stand out? Just saying that you help people won’t be enough.

The person deciding where the dollar goes on these things won’t always be some bleeding-heart philanthropist. It’s more likely they’re akin to the stressed out CMO, desperately trying to prove they haven’t pissed away the budget they’ve been given.

In fact, as my cold, mercenary heart is unable to frame things in terms of helping others, I found that thinking of these funding proposals like an ad campaign became very useful:

– What’s the conversion rate? (Number of people the charity helps / number of people involved)
– What’s the ROI? (How sustainable is what the charity does?)
– Is there an advocacy programme? (How many of the people helped go on to help others?)
– Am I capable of real human feeling?

Choose your weapon.

A good strategy should be like a Kalashnikov. Yes, there might be shinier guns on the market. More expensive, better looking guns. But really, you want something that is going to get the job done, is never going to break, and is so simple that even a child can use it.

So this charity wanted funding from the corporations. They were used to sending out proposals detailing all the amazing stuff they did. They even had a fancy 12-page brochure with lots of colourful pictures. None of it was working and no one was reading it.

What’s the use of an assault rifle if it’s not even loaded?

I told them to just go heavy on the one thing that the charity did that could help the client out—whether that was helping them celebrate their Zambian heritage, or a new way of engaging their teams. It worked. Before all this shit hit the fan, they were already in budget talks with some of the corporations they sent the new proposals out to.

Everybody is your client. Including your client.

Before I did my stint in Zambia, I struggled to explain what my day job is (in fact, my nan still thinks I ‘draw’ the ads).

All this time I was thinking strategy was some kind of mysterious art. But when you reduce it down, it can be a simple formula that’s probably applicable to any business, especially not-for-profits. (By the way, for anyone who isn’t a strategist reading this, it is most definitely a mysterious art.)

Your client, no matter who that is, has a problem. You have to work out what that problem is, find a way of solving it, convince them that this is indeed their problem, and that your solution is the best one, in a way that makes sense to them. Then you have to solve that problem.

For this charity, the client was the corporations they wanted funding from.

For me, my client was the charity, attempting to prove that some rando white girl had anything to offer them.

For us, the client is sometimes, wait for it, the client. But more often than not it’s the people you work with. That goes for any organisation.

Work out the problem, sell the problem, then sell the solution. And then pray to god it works. The rest is just making PowerPoints.

Strategy teaches you to think in a ruthless manner. But I found applying this kind of brutality to the supposedly warm and fuzzy world of charities proved useful, for me at least.

At the moment, us strategists do our thing in order to sell stuff. But applying the kind of thinking we do in other situations could be immensely powerful.

And as we find ourselves reaching the End Times, and the need for actual rather than allegorical Kalashnikovs becomes more apparent, let’s raise a toast to the pointlessness of our job, and the potential of its application.



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