Dentsu Aegis directs its employees’ skills toward community-based charities. Adam Woodhall reports . . .
“Over the past five years, the agency has helped more than 2,500 small charities to increase their communications capabilities.”
On an average day in the Western world, people see between 250 and 270 pieces of advertising. Globally, approximately $600 billion was spent on advertising in 2015, with the UK spending nearly 1% of its GDP on marketing. The power and reach of marketing and advertising in our society is unquestionable.
Dentsu Aegis Network is one of the largest agencies in the world. They have recognised they can harness this power as a force for good by utilising the skills of their employees to support community-based charities. Over the past five years, the agency has helped more than 2,500 small charities increase their communications capabilities. The company’s commitment has been particularly evident in its work with GlobalGiving UK, in an innovative approach to sourcing marketing skills through the Route to Good programme, and also with the GlobalGivingTIME programme, one of the first online volunteering communities.
As Frank Krikhaar, Dentsu Aegis Network's Global CSR Director, says of his company’s core business, "It's all around us, it powers and fuels a huge part of the economy." He continues, "Advertising and marketing can have an amazing impact when used for good. That's of course, a big part of my job. We need to make sure we use it for that purpose and we make sure we use it better in the future."
The advertising and marketing industry has recently evolved at an almost dizzying pace. For example, in 2009 Twitter had only just started to come into its own, Instagram hadn't even launched and Snapchat wasn't even a twinkle in its founder’s eyes. Similarly, Dentsu Aegis Network's CSR has come a long way.
As Krikhaar observes: "I remember starting in late 2009. The company had done some ad-hoc activities here and there, and really wanted to build a coherent and comprehensive sustainability strategy. Back then I had to knock on doors to get things done and to get people moving. Now, it's the other way around, people are knocking on our doors and saying, 'How can we get involved? We really want to do something in our country, in our office, with our brand. How can I engage with your team?'"
A global agency like Dentsu Aegis Network can, of course, have a fantastic reach, says Krikhaar. "Looking back, there are some projects, where I think, 'Wow, look at the absolute mass impact we had.' For instance, in September 2015 we helped launch the UN Sustainable Development Goals by organising the world's biggest outdoor advertising campaign ever. Together with other media partners, we made sure nearly two billion people around the world were exposed to those goals".
Whilst campaigns like that one have massive reach, it was recognised early on that this large-scale approach might not be appropriate for the main thrust of Dentsu Aegis Network's ‘Future Proof’ strategy. Krikhaar explains: "As a business we are able to really tailor advertising campaigns at a local level. My main challenge was, how do I do that for CSR? When we started this journey six years ago, on purpose we decided we're not going to have a global charity partner. One of the main challenges was how can we create an approach where countries will decide their own priorities that they want to address, and give them tools to do that. In 2010, that was very different to what was recommended best practice, and so we went down a significantly different route in terms of executing a strategy."
In addition to this approach—to support only SME charities and not have a global charity partner—reflecting the devolved autonomy of the agency, it also reflects a growing realisation in the field that this may actually be a better approach. Krikhaar observes: “Studies have shown small grassroots charities are often more able to deliver locally relevant change and have the biggest impact on the ground compared to big multinational aid organisations.”
Rachel Smith, Co-Founder of GlobalGiving UK and Director of Programmes & Operations, describes the Route to Good programme: “Money isn’t the only thing that charities need, so this programme looks at matching highly skilled marketers with charity leaders. Not only are we passionate about ensuring that the charities benefit, but also consider what the employee and the business can gain. The programme encourages the employees to be coaches, to listen and challenge rather than provide solutions. For the company, the value is about investing in the high potential people and increasing retention by providing high quality learning.”
Overall, more than 700 small and medium-sized charities have received skilled volunteering support involving nearly 1000 volunteers. The feedback from the charities and employees has been excellent. For example, 86% of charity respondents reported some or significant development to their communications with donors and 81% of employees recognised specific
professional development in leadership.
GENCAD is a small charity supporting women and girls in rural Kenya. Director Abdirashid Ali detailed their experience: “Sander and Aurelien from the Amsterdam and Paris offices of Dentsu Aegis Network were fantastic. We learned a lot of project management techniques, how to remote work and with their support, revamped our social media, improved messaging and therefore reached more people. After this support, our Twitter following went up by over 200% and Facebook likes by nearly 100%, and although it's not possible to know exactly the impact on giving, our online donations definitely increased”.
Sander Verhof observes: “Route to Good gave me the inspiration to work together with the great charity GENCAD. Alongside our mentoring, we also created a charity ride, which raised €11,000 through a bike ride from Amsterdam to Paris. It was a great experience.” Ali continues: “It's not just the cash that's been raised, there's the intangible engagement generated. All these changes led new commitment and excitement from the trustees and volunteers.”
As New Yorker Kaitlyn Lariviere remarked, “Route to Good has allowed me to apply my skills in a unique way… and has provided me the opportunity to learn more. Helping a charity forge a path to success has been a challenging but rewarding experience.”
Further evidence of the success of the support from Dentsu Aegis Network employees comes from Sarah Galvin, Director of PHASE worldwide, a small charity working with communities in Nepal: “This scheme has been instrumental in making big improvements to the website, newsletter, how we talk to different supporters and overall communications. Furthermore, by drawing on relationships with their clients, we received pro bono advertising space in British Airways executive lounges.”
Whilst the programme has been a considerable success, it’s not all been easy sailing. “Really the most difficult thing that I learned over the last six years is letting go,” explains Krikhaar. “We can't influence everything that happens from London, because frankly, we don't know what the issues are in Kenya or Nepal. Rather than assuming that the CSR team knows best, I’ve let the social change makers and entrepreneurs come forward and say, ‘Well this is what we'd like to do. Can you support that’”?
The results of this journey are clear. Recognition comes right from the top, with Nigel Morris, CEO, Dentsu Aegis Network Americas & EMEA and chair of their Sustainability Committee, noting, with approval: “Our achievements over the past five years clearly show that it is possible for multinationals to have a tangible and positive local impact, reflecting locally felt needs. We’re incredibly proud of what we have achieved”.