One of the most rewarding parts of being a creative person in advertising is creating campaigns pro bono for charity. Big non-profit organizations such as the Red Cross and the United Way know they are asking for much time and effort and appreciate good work when they get it.
The first United Way job I worked on was for a full-page newspaper ad featuring Joey, the year's poster child. Joey's photo showed him on crutches. He had spina bifida.
I was a beginning writer, and this was the first assignment where my art-director partner Bill and I were told, "Do whatever you want". A piece of cake, right?
Every day Bill and I would meet for five or six hours in Bill's tiny office, with me sitting cross-legged on his file cabinet. I'd suggest something, and Bill wouldn't like it. Bill would suggest a visual and I would ask why. I would suggest a visual, and Bill would say it's been done --- the kiss of death in advertising. This went on for two weeks. At the end of each day, one of us would say, "Let's look at it in the morning", and in the clear light of the morning, there was nothing we could use.
One morning around ten, I showed up in Bill's office with two coffees in hand, an unmistakable peace offering. Bill was deep in thought and asked me if I would give to the United Way. I said I gave already, in the agency's drive. Bill asked me what are some of the other reasons people would use for not giving now. Together, we listed them. And so we did an ad:
"I gave at the office."
"My wife gave at home."
"It's been a tough year."
"My kid gave at school."
"I gave last year."
"Maybe next year."
"It's been a very tough year."
And then the photo of Joey and the line: Tell it to Joey.
Bill did a great job on an elegantly simple layout, with all the excuses in different type faces, and I wrote some short copy about Joey, and the United Way. When it ran, United Way got many compliments, and collected record amounts. We were heroes. A huge blow-up of the ad appeared in our lobby overnight, and it was featured in the agency newsletter and in press releases. The ad won a national Addy award, and Bill and I got calls from headhunters.
Bill is now the head of one of the most successful television production companies in L.A. and I thank him. If he hadn't been so good and so hard on me, I'd probably be a different creative director today. A lot softer on myself, I suspect.
And in advertising, sometimes soft is death.