Controversial 'I wish I had breast cancer' campaign creator on why charities have a duty to be bold

The controversial Pancreatic Cancer Action campaign

Everyone wants a good advertising ROI. Nowhere is this more important than in the charity space. But there’s a problem. Charities are finding traditional methods of fundraising and engagement are becoming less and less effective.

The recent and ongoing furore over the ‘I wish I had breast cancer’ creative for Pancreatic Cancer Action is a rare example of a campaign which has smacked the British public in the face.

Team Darwin was the creative agency behind the pro-bono campaign. We’ve watched opinion snowball and divide, from the pages of the Mail to the comment pages of the Guardian and the sofas on Newsnight. It’s been the most talked about charity campaign in years. Agree or disagree with our strategy, we believe its bold step should now be a wider call to action to the charity community.

Despite their invariably smaller budgets, charities have a huge natural asset which their corporate counterparts spend millions trying to develop – emotion.

And they have agencies on their side too. Charity briefs hold the promise of striking work that has real meaning. Done well, you know that someone or something, somewhere, will actually benefit from it.

But even with the creative industry’s willingness to work pro-bono or at loss leader rates, we’re all still up against a massive barrier: despite being the sixth most generous country in the world, the Great British Public is suffering from cause fatigue.

There are now over 180,000 charities registered in England and Wales and countless e-petitions and local community initiatives. And when you look at what charities are competing for – that last tiny fraction of a penny in every pound that could be spent on another coffee – you can see how crucial it is to have an impact.

But apart from some notable exceptions – NSPCC, Barnados, the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) – most charities could do more for their cause.

There needs to be a bolder culture within the charities themselves. That means adopting a leadership and decision-making approach more in line with organisations in the private sector, with trustees behaving more like ambitious board directors. But unless you're a big charity, marketing is not a professionalised function in the organisation. In many, there is a culture of consensus and mutualism; the desire to do good is coupled with the desire not to cross an imaginary line.

The opportunity to cut through is there, it's just the willingness to grasp it. The Pancreatic Cancer Action campaign is an example of that. This is a small but purposeful charity – the word action is not there by accident. Founder Ali Stunt set out to change pancreatic cancer’s dismal survival rate of three per cent – a figure which hasn’t changed in 40 years.

The trouble is, the disease has failed to make it into the public’s consciousness and people continue to be diagnosed too late for life saving surgery. This is despite the fact that pancreatic cancer is the fifth biggest cancer killer, claiming over 8,000 lives a year in the UK, and has killed high-profile figures such as Steve Jobs, Pavarotti and Patrick Swayze.

So our strategy from day one was to confront people with the facts. We did that by showing how it’s a situation so desperate that anything else seems more attractive.

This would be a crass approach were it not completely true. The ‘I wish I had…(another type of cancer)’ lines chime like cathedral bells with every pancreatic cancer patient we’ve spoken to, and with everyone who has lost someone to the cancer. It is simply an unbearable insight expressed.

In a day, a week, or a month, all the people who were up in arms by our campaign will no longer be upset. But the country will have woken up to a silent killer. Wake up calls are always a jolt, but they leave you awake.

Within 48 hours of the campaign breaking, global news channels were advising on signs and symptoms. Millions more people are now aware of what to look out for when it comes to pancreatic cancer. Many will have their symptoms checked out and some may be diagnosed in time for life-saving surgery. And our client has been invited to Westminster to discuss research and funding with MPs, something that would never have happened if we’d taken the edge off the campaign.

There are so many charities out there with hidden stories like this – stories that need to be told. And I’m sure there are many many agencies who would love to help them tell it.

It just calls for a bold approach.

Greg Phitidis is chief creative at Team Darwin

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