The day George Smith showed me the finger
I've not always been the all knowing guru that I shamelessly pretend to be on this blog.
It may be hard to believe, but I was once a fundraising cretin who thought that putting a good appeal together was simply down to listening to your gut.
And sadly when I look back at some of the things I said and did at the very beginning of my career, it was obvious that most of my thinking was happening at the far end of my alimentary canal.
Heaven knows what the poor account handlers and creatives who had the misfortune to work with me must have gone through, but just thinking of some of the absolute rubbish I spouted as a young client is painful enough to make me physically cringe and groan out loud.
As a result, I'd like to make a public apology to the staff at Yellowhammer Direct, Grey Direct, Burnett Associates and FCB Impact for the many, many stupid things I said over the years (including once even complaining about the shape of a D – what was I thinking?).
But before I get completely off the point let me get back to the real reason for this post.
I wanted to share a short story about how George Smith influenced my career. Unfortunately I didn't know him very well and can add very little to the tribute from Ken Burnett in The Guardian and those from his many friends and colleagues that can be found on SOFII.
But I thought this recollection about how he changed the way I looked at fundraising might serve both as a thank you and a cautionary tale to young fundraisers tempted by the dark side.
The first time I met George was back in the early nineties when I paid my only visit to the Smith Bundy offices in Kennington. I was an over-promoted Head of Direct Marketing at YMCA England and we were looking for a new agency.
It wasn't long before I started sharing my frustrations that fundraising was broken and we had to re-invent it.
As the meeting went on, George seemed more interested in the surface of his desk than in what I had to say. As I watched, he slowly started tracing the grain of the wood with his finger, finally looking up when my lecture finished.
He smiled, then wished me the best of luck in searching for this new approach and assured me he'd love to hear the results when they were available.
Needless to say, we didn't end up working with Smith Bundy.
But his influence stayed with me. He'd been polite, but without saying a single word had told me he thought I was being bloody stupid.
It got me thinking. And reading. What did he know that I didn't?
I kept an eye out for George's articles in industry publications and started ordering books written by old school fundraisers and direct marketers – many from the USA. My reading list included Ken Burnett, Drayton Bird, David Ogilvy, Lester Wunderman, Harold J. Seymour, John Watson, Jerry Huntsinger and Denison Hatch.
George's Asking Properly became one of my favourite publications and still holds the record as the book most likely to be stolen from the Bluefrog library. I trawled our building this afternoon trying to find a copy only to discover there wasn't a single one to be found. As a result I've just put my order in to the White Lion Press for yet another copy. How long it will last is anyone's guess.
So we started writing and designing our own appeals based on what we were learning from George and his peers and our packs worked. Often very well. We even won an award.
As a result, I received a number of phone calls from different charities asking who was doing our creative work. They gave me the confidence to resign in 1997 and set up Bluefrog.
All because of George's finger.
Many years later, George visited the Bluefrog offices to chat with us about our work. it was a great opportunity and I wish I could have spent longer with him but 'urgent' meetings on long forgotten campaigns got in the way. I thought about sharing this story with him, but we'd run out of time. It's something I imagine I'll always regret.
Luckily George wasn't like me and regularly shared his thoughts in his writing. And for those of you who never got the chance to chat to George, you can do yourself a massive favour and read George's last publication, Up Smith Creek which features a selection of his writings going back to the 1970s.
It's not as concise as the advice George gave me with his finger but it's every bit as valuable.