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Pro Bono Work--Why a Recession is the Perfect Time for Agencies to Invest

By Jeff Rosenblum for Ad Age


Depending on how you read economic data, we are either knee-deep in a recession or rapidly heading toward one. Agencies are among the first to feel the effects. Clients are becoming risk averse, brands are cutting budgets and expenditures are being scrutinized. This could seem to be the worst time to launch a pro bono project, given how expensive and distracting it could be. In fact, it’s the perfect time.


Every agency should collectively wake up in the morning wanting to be the best in the industry. It's impossible to accomplish that goal without trying to make the world a better place. Great leaders know that the key to building the best possible agency comes down to winning the war for talent.


The best talent in the world doesn't want to work for a company without a bigger purpose than profits, that doesn't stretch its creative thinking and doesn’t have an inspiring vision for the future. Beyond the obvious benefit of using our skills to make the world a better place, pro bono work helps agencies by addressing critical business factors impacted during challenging economic times—culture, expertise and vision.

Helps Build Culture

Great agencies are built via great culture, which comes down to acquiring talent and facilitating collaboration. Despite the exponential growth of technology, data and artificial intelligence, great agencies are still a collection of talented human beings striving to do their best work together.


Young employees want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Pro bono work enables them to flex their creative muscles and move the world forward. It gives teams exposure to new challenges and collaboration with new colleagues. It enables teams to think bolder and bigger than when working with for-profit organizations. Investing in pro bono projects enables agencies to attract the most talented people in the industry and optimize systems for positive collaboration.


Helps Build Expertise

Corporations often play it safe when it comes to creativity and media planning, especially during economic downturns—overinvesting in TV advertising, for instance, when most audiences spend their time on digital. Nonprofits are less hamstrung by risk-averse thinking, and the very nature of their work lends itself to rethinking how a brand can engage with consumers differently. That enables agencies to stretch their creativity—not with frivolous tactics, but with ideas that represent how audiences consume content.

By pushing beyond the boundaries of what day-to-day clients typically request, agencies emerge smarter by expanding their creativity, learning about new channels and honing processes for putting out the best possible work.


Helps Build Vision

Bold vision is what sets great agencies apart. They see past barriers, such as a recession, and develop solutions for overcoming them. Investing in pro bono work helps leadership show the team that barriers can be overcome; that vision and perseverance lead to great work, no matter the circumstances.


Pro bono work helps prove to each person on the team that they can overcome challenges and put out work that not only changes the trajectory of a brand but also makes the world a better place. Agencies are in the business of creating visions for both brands and audiences. Those visions start internally. Pro bono helps demonstrate what is feasible with the power of creativity and collaboration.


The bottom line is that pro bono work helps agencies build their culture, expand their expertise and codify their vision. While many agencies batten down the hatches in tough economic times, pro bono work is probably less expensive during a recession because the opportunity cost is significantly lower. And the upside is dramatically higher because internal teams can emerge from the recession more experienced and inspired than ever. If you're not going to do it now, you're probably never going to do it. And if you're never going to invest in making the world a better place, you're never going to be the world-class agency that you want to be.

"Pro bono helps demonstrate what is feasible with the power of creativity and collaboration."

- Jeff Rosenblum

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