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February 16, 2010
Pause for the Cause

“The advertising professionals in this country are some of the most skilled communicators in the world. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could harness those skills and use them toward solving the world’s problems. Imagine the difference it would make.”
-- Bill Bernbach

This quote hung on my Madison Ave. ad agency office wall for years, yet even before that, I believed in the power of advertising and its potential to solve world problems. It’s why, over the years, I’ve focused my energy on a number causes I care about -- about two dozen. 

Outside of industry award shows, we ad folk aren’t known for being honored, yet our agency’s efforts for child-abuse prevention got me honored with the United Nations and at the White House. It’s certainly been one the highlights of my career.

Other public-service campaigns my agency and I created over the years garnered us national press, major industry awards, and radio and TV interviews.

What’s particularly cool about my White House experience is how it started: I was sitting home watching TV. It’s true. While flipping channels one night, I stumbled on a PBS special that analyzed the life of Adolf Hitler. I watched intently as Bill Moyers described Hitler’s childhood and the physical-and-emotional abuse he experienced at the hands of his father.

His childhood experiences didn't surprise me but made me think it could serve as an ad for child-abuse prevention. After three weeks and countless hours of research in the library (this was pre-Internet), I finally had the ad.

My partner said it was one of the best ads he’d ever seen. Now, the question was what to do with it.

My partner was able to get the interest of a regional child abuse prevention office, and with a little finagling, we managed to get the ad to run in a local newspaper. I don’t think the paper had a big circulation, so we weren’t exactly making a big initial splash, but at least it was being seen.

A few weeks later, our client called to ask how much it would cost to have a few hundred posters produced. It turned out he was getting calls from area teachers and social workers who were so taken by the ad they wanted a poster of it. It was great to know our ad was actually touching people, but our big break came when we got a formal meeting with representatives from the National Child Abuse Prevention who were visiting from Chicago.

We were thrilled to present our ad to an organization that could really give it some exposure, so when we met and they told us they weren’t crazy about it, we were shocked.

“It’s certainly interesting and provocative,” they responded politely, “but it’s really not our strategy.”

I was about to tell them what they could do with their strategy when they asked if we’d be interested in a project. The project they offered was a shot at a national TV campaign.

The campaign we created three months later ran during nationally televised NBA games, was seen by millions, won awards, and created a great, positive buzz. NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik said, "We’ve gotten more favorable notice (mail, media response, etc.) for these spots than for any other PSA effort we've ever done."

Most importantly, it helped increase national hotline responses a whopping 57 percent.

Another non-profit campaign for a client I still work with is featured in two marketing textbooks. This fall marked the 11th year I’ve worked with The Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. The relationship began when the minister realized that prayer alone wouldn’t ensure his church's future success.

For years the church had set aside funds for marketing, but the funds were limited, and the marketing effort was nothing. As a result, attendance was dwindling. To turn things around, the minister realized a more serious marketing effort would be needed.

I’d attended the church many times and liked it a lot, so I met with the minister, discussed the new marketing budget, and agreed to give it a shot. I wasn’t sure the minister was ready for our brand of advertising, but I knew he was serious about attracting a younger, hipper market.

The result was a campaign that created a city-wide buzz and increased membership over 30 percent two years after the campaign broke. Web site traffic increased tenfold. The church received the added value of positive national press in The New York Times, USA Today, TIME, New York Daily News, and Adweek. The college text, "Principles of Marketing" (Prentice Hall) included the campaign as a case in "effective marketing on a limited budget."

A 2004 follow-up study by the church indicated that more people had come to Marble from the ad campaign than from their cable TV and radio broadcasts combined.

The most successful of the dozen ads that we produced was an idea prompted by some less-than-positive feedback. I’d meet hip New Yorkers at Manhattan parties who’d tell me they loved the campaign but never went to Marble. I realized I had to try to change that.

I suspected that the reason many people didn’t go to Marble Church was because they assumed that Marble Church was all about Sunday mornings. After partying late on Saturday night, who wants to deal with church on Sunday morning?

What they didn’t know was that the church had about two dozen great programs, groups, and activities throughout the week. That’s what needed to be communicated, and this new ad became the most effective one we did. (See full case at: http://www.follisinc.com/casemarble.htm)

In 2008, I took on another important public-service project simply because I felt the need. I also believed that a smart, creative online “viral” message could potentially move millions.

My goal was to get the presidential vote out. The headline read: "If you don’t vote, you may regret it for days."

The accompanying  visual that followed was a list of every date for the next four years, the term of the presidency. At the bottom, I asked the viewer to vote on Nov. 8, and if they liked the message, to forward the e-mail. 

Remember, ad professionals are some of the most skilled communicators in the world. If you can spare the time, why not pick a cause you care about and help make the world a little better?


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John Follis is president of Follis Advertising LLC, author of How to Attract and Excite Your Prospects, and host of The Marketing Show, a syndicated podcast on iTunes.  His full profile can be found on Wikipedia

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