Free the birds

Studio, Thinking

Pro Bono: Why It Adds Up

There are times when working for a good cause, for free, feels great. This can especially be the case at Christmas.

Then there are times when it feels less so, notably when times are tough for you, too. But there is a strong business argument for pro bono work not being something limited to when business is booming, or being confined just to this time of year.

This might sound a strange argument from someone with fiscal responsibility for a business. All the more so, since it’s been reported that the branding and design sector has faced a decidedly tricky year.

Indeed, a report analysing agencies’ financial results published last month by Moore Kingston Smith, showed year-on-year sales growth for the top agencies across all disciplines was an average 5.3 per cent. The PR, marketing and digital sectors enjoyed double-digit growth in gross income, but the figure for UK branding and design agencies was a sorry minus 2.5 per cent.

While branding and design fared particularly poorly compared to other creative sectors over the past 12 months, together with reduced net income, there’s no doubt pressure on the bottom line for agencies across the board has increased.

Not working for free for a charity or other good cause within this economy seems a bit of a no brainer. But there are benefits to not giving in to the knee-jerk impulse to simply say no to pro bono.

This is where a carefully considered, measured approach can really come into its own. It is still possible to do well. Strategic work, for instance, is harder for clients to do themselves. As a result, it’s more valued, and, rightly, it allows agencies to charge a premium. It’s the agencies skilled in this area – whether in PR, digital, branding and design, that will buck the trend.

What’s more, for any agency, people are the biggest cost – recruitment, training, annual pay increases – typically accounting for 55 to 60 per cent of all net income. In the report, the top 30 branding and design agencies spent a whopping 61 per cent of fee income on employment costs.



Alex Coote, Financial Controller, Free The Birds

There’s a strong argument to make that working for charities and good causes generates the sort of team bonding and motivation that would cost agencies thousands in development training, management away-days or weekends and agency activities.

And, as non-profit clients frequently inspire a more emotional connection and engagement, people feel their work is more valued and making a difference. They share it with friends and family. It’s talked about.  This is good for morale and offers a sense of job satisfaction. Workplace culture is reinforced and staff turnover drops, benefitting the bottom line through significant cost savings in hiring and retraining.

As such, it’s an underestimated, powerful motivation for talent retention, particularly within the creative industry where this type of intangible asset is so important.

The work expands the agency’s portfolio, sometimes into new categories. This inevitably raises the business profile and showcases its softer side, making it more attractive to fee-paying clients in that sector. Pro bono work can, therefore, be a launchpad to expand and, in turn, increase revenue.

Non-profits and charities also tend to have a wide business network, and can connect and introduce you to influential board and non-exec directors, as well as businesses with budgets.

For all these reasons, we undertake one pro bono campaign every year, which is both purposeful and fun. This year we are working with Clarity & Co., a social enterprise that employs blind and disabled people to create handcrafted luxury beauty products for its brands, The Soap Co. and BECO.

Nevertheless, taking on pro bono clients, no matter how healthy your revenues, won’t be the right decision for everyone.  Keeping a close eye on time and effort spent is critical from a financial perspective to guard against over-servicing.

But the true value and long-term advantage, we all firmly believe is what it can, and does, deliver to our business and people, over, beyond and including the bottom line.

For this reason, pro bono should mean more than a one-off Christmas ad. It can deliver lasting worth as an integral part of an agency’s business all year.

Alex Coote.