The case for pro bono: it’s not just about marketing

From agency survival to noble civic duty, CEO and founder of Bastion Brands Simon Davies champions pro bono work.

Pro bono work is a staple of many marketing and advertising agency portfolios. In fact, the value of pro bono hours per year usually outstrips the dollar figure of agency donations. Despite pro bono practice being common, however, it is not well understood outside of a corporate social responsibility context. Pro bono work is an essential component for an agency’s survival, furnishing it with the opportunity to retain and engage talent and advance creative development, in addition to the primary reason of fulfilling civic responsibility.


Start with the cause

Agencies need to take a cause-first approach to pro bono work. Focusing primarily on the benefits for the business is rightly viewed as selfish and it doesn’t have the same resonance as placing the cause at the centre of the project. Just as you would with any client, concentrate on the outcomes of the work and the outcomes for your agency will follow.

Unlike with paid work, however, agencies can be more proactive choosing their pro bono clients – for example, working in an area that is underrepresented or particularly challenging. A cause in the same or complementary sector as your paid clients will allow you to tap into the skills, resources and network you’ve already developed in your existing portfolio.

Often, a cause or organisation can reflect the passions of team members and serve as both personal and professional motivation. This provides the pro bono client with a highly engaged team that gives the campaign the best chance of succeeding.

Invest in people

Pro bono work can help you invest in talent, both developing the skills of your team members but also providing professional guidance for the pro bono client, who may not have worked with an agency before.

Offering your services pro bono to clients who may not be in a position to pay, especially in a soft economy, allows them to retain staff while simultaneously keeping talent within your agency. Often, because pro bono work may not have the same access to resources as a well-budgeted campaign, it becomes a creative opportunity to find out what your team can do with tight budget restrictions, working with a client who is perhaps more willing to try something different because it is unpaid.

I have also found that talent is attracted to agencies that do pro bono work. Being able to choose the client can help you draw the right talent and the right paying clients too.

Finding balance 

While pro bono work must primarily focus on the client, that’s not to say the agency should bankrupt itself while doing it. Discuss objectives and set expectations prior to embarking on a pro bono project with regard to your agency’s capacity and what you are willing to do or donate in the course of the work. For example, if you require a production company to record an advertisement, is that a cost your agency will bear, or a complimentary service you’re willing to leverage from a connection?

Finally, the outcomes for the client must clearly benefit them, but it also needs to have some positive outcomes for your agency too. Whether that’s skills, knowledge or experience your team can take forward, promotional opportunities to attract paying clients or other metrics such as staff retention, an improved business development model, or the chance to submit to awards.

Simon Davies is the CEO and founder of Bastion Brands.


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