As one of the first fundraisers to use the medium when it was newly authorised in 1991, Giles shares his memories of the TV campaigns run by the NSPCC in to the 2000s as well as his thoughts on what – if anything – has changed?

This is a pretty long post and there are plenty of ads to watch. So I’ll be sharing my thoughts and looking at what lessons we can learn from Giles’ experience in the next few days.

What follows is from Giles.


I was watching TV very recently, and the wording at the beginning of a charity DRTV ad was exactly the same, word-for-word, as the NSPCC was using 25 years’ ago. Just the name of the charity had changed. I found it interesting to see how similar DRTV ads are now, both to each other, and also to ads a quarter of a century ago.  

We now know so much more about what motivates donors to give than we did 28 years ago, when charities were first allowed to advertise on TV. I would have expected more transformational change.

What follows is a short history of NSPCC TV ads. There are six; they are very different, and worth watching, again, I hope. I found them fascinating to collate. You won’t be bored.

(And to stave off accusations of self-congratulation, my involvement in these ads was limited to appointing WWAV (now RAPP) as our below-the-line agency, and Saatchi and Saatchi as our above-the-line agency, and never requiring either of them to pitch, or re-pitch, in thirty years. I have written a short explanation of this at the end.)

Until 1991, charities were not allowed to advertise on TV. When the restriction was lifted many of us piled in. This was NSPCC’s first attempt. In hindsight, to quote the author Saki, “That’s very modern, and I daresay very clever, but I’m afraid it’s wasted on me.”

It was a minute long, and it bombed.

So we cut it to 30 seconds, and it still bombed.

15 seconds. Nothing.

At the same time, no other charity had found the way to make TV work for fundraising.  We weren’t alone.

The first successful DRTV ad

John Watson of our DM agency, WWAV, decided that we should start from scratch. We had a cold mailing that had been used over many years, and kept working, so why should we not take the key elements of this, and turn it into a TV ad? Not by reducing the time but by increasing it to 90 seconds, i.e. six times longer and unheard of in the UK sector.

Everyone knows that long copy works on direct mail, so why not use the same principle on TV?

John took this away and recruited David Bailey as director. The result (Ellie), I suspect, will surprise you. But, unlike anything before, it worked, outstandingly. The actor who played Ellie in the ad came to our Annual Council Meeting and was given a standing applause.

Should the above video not be visible, please use this link.
Today, no-one would accept David Bailey’s creativity, as it was quite surreal, but there was a compelling narrative that became more obvious as the advert progressed. Unlike many more recent DRTV ads, it required several viewings fully to grasp what was happening. What do you think?

The move at the end from a child in black and white to colour was brilliant, said all that was needed about the NSPCC’s intervention, and was used since.

Few would consider 90 seconds. Given that this was the very first successful DRTV ad, I think the request for money and the response mechanism were superb and are still used today.

The amount asked for 28 years ago was a single gift of £15 which may seem quite a lot (£32 at today’s prices). Since then we’ve seen a race to the bottom.

This was the start of successful DRTV in this country.

When ‘Ellie’ was first broadcast in 1991 recruitment ROIs were falling, and 0.7:1 was considered good (Halcyon days).

‘Ellie’ significantly out-performed this, and so, because of first-mover advantage, DRTV became NSPCC’s most successful recruitment channel. We kept quiet about its success, and it took others in the sector a couple of years to catch up. Meanwhile we ploughed a lot of money into it.

David Bailey’s direction of the ad still gives me goosebumps. It draws the viewer in. I am very proud of it, and its total rejection of what had been done previously. Looking at it, it would have been easy to take thirty seconds off David Bailey’s creative introduction. But that wouldn’t have had the same power. Do you agree?  

Refining the approach

Over the next year, we made the creative far more obvious and more accessible. In 1992, the ad was the same length, 1½ minutes, but the need was presented far more directly. The, genuine, newspaper headlines went on and on.

The resolution of the ad was the same: the move from a child in need, in B&W, to a happy child, in colour. I don’t think we ever achieved in that transition what David Bailey achieved in the Ellie ad. But the concept was repeatable.It had enormous power.  

Ten years on

Jumping ten years, I, personally, think this was our most powerful ad, in 2001.   ‘Miles’.

Harold Sumption, my guru, said: ‘Present the need powerfully, not to shock, but to engage.’  

Of all the ads I was responsible for, this was the one that most met Harold’s criteria and it was greatly successful.

It was also heavily criticised, including by an acknowledged consultant paediatrician who was an NSPCC trustee and so was taken very seriously.   It did indeed ‘present the need powerfully’ and had a great response. But at what cost to the child actor?

The image above is of a happy and contented toddler, enjoying spending a day playing with his mother, a trained nurse whose purpose was to intervene, if necessary, and a very friendly camera crew. Truly.

From a day’s filming, the director identified one powerful image, just one second long, and just part of the constant changes of expression in a toddler. It was then drawn out by fairly simple technology to a total of 21 seconds, including a (not immediately noticeable) repeat at the end of 6 seconds. It was then very powerful indeed but bore no resemblance to the one day’s actual filming.

Because I wanted to continue with a highly successful ad it was important to address the incorrect interpretations of the filming session. Our director of children’s services himself directly intervened. I am deeply grateful to him.

A qualified nurse had been present at all times, solely to look after the well-being of Miles. Miles’s mother was there at all times. Our director of children’s services met her and established beyond doubt that there had been no distress at any point in the filming. (Some time later, Miles was also interviewed. By then a teenager, he was thrilled that he should have had such an impact and still talks about it. He was a famous actor. Despite being given much opportunity, he has no recollection of being at all distressed by the filming.)

DRTV ads couldn’t, in practice, be shown on mainstream TV, simply because it would have been impossible to process the huge telephone response in the two minutes after the ad. In 1991 there wasn’t the plethora of channels there is today, and our best slots were on Channel 4 in the afternoon.

How could we use mainstream tv and get to a much larger audience?

How Fundraising TV Ads don’t need to be dependent on a direct response

There are two other ads I’d like to show you.

The first wasn’t a direct response ad, but was still totally about fundraising, and not about ‘brand’.   It was aired on mainstream TV for two weeks immediately after the launch of the Full Stop Campaign and Appeal in 1999.   Although there was a phone number discreetly at the end – it would have been wrong to show an ad like this without at least giving viewers the opportunity to respond.  

But its sole purpose was to support the huge amount of other fundraising activity in that two-week period.

We did no donor recruitment activity at all in 1998, and no above-the-line activity, so, with the permission of the Trustees, we had a quite considerable full two years’ budget to spend, and we used most of it in the two weeks after the launch of the Full Stop Campaign and Appeal in March 1999, with heavy rotation of this new TV ad.

We had a very high-profile launch event.  

We door-dropped every household in the country, 23,000,000, asking people to ‘pledge to help end cruelty to children’ and donate, campaign or volunteer.  

We organised a weekend when there were 1,500 stalls in shopping centres up and down the country, with volunteers, encouraging people to fill in the pledge form.

There was a cold DM mailing signed by the Duke of York. We mailed 1,000,000 donors and lapsed donors.

We ran a PR campaign, including around the Duke of York’s involvement, but also around the very idea of aspiring to ‘end cruelty to children’. This was a first, well before ‘end poverty’ etc.   We threw everything, bar the kitchen sink, at those two weeks.

We also had a DRTV ad, shown on the usual less-watched channels, for the reason above.

But we wanted something more. Something that would bring all the fundraising elements together and reinforce them. We created a TV ad with no direct response call to action, so again could be shown on mainstream TV.

It was by far the most complained about NSPCC ad ever. There were so many complaints that the ASA required us only to show the ad post the 9pm watershed. Yet there is not a single image of a cruelly treated child – indeed there isn’t a single image of a child at all. Mute the sound and you’ll wonder what the fuss was about.

Saatchi’s group account director in 1999, John Rudaizky, said: 

“Because of the nature of the issue, we’ve trod very carefully. Sadly, people have become immune to images of children with bruises. This, however, is more powerful because of what you don’t see.”

This final ad was again by Saatchi and Saatchi.   In 2002, it was again not a direct response ad, but one created to support all aspects of the Full Stop Campaign and Appeal when it was in full flow. But it does show a totally different creative approach.

What now?  And what next?

I accept that the last two ads were not direct response, but Miles was, and I don’t see a lot of that unique, compelling creativity in 2019. It may just be me (It often is).   You will have tested your approach rigorously. You know that your ads work. And I know of the strong link today between DRTV and Digital

But I urge you to go outside your comfort zone, take what you know is unique about your supporters, and get your agency to think creatively about how to reach them. Something different, perhaps. The most recent of the ads here is 18 years’ old (in 2020).

I simply don’t know whether DRTV has been honed into a fine art which can’t be built on, whether agencies are being lazy, or charities are being too restrictive. You must decide. I hope this retrospective of just a very few of NSPCCs ads might be useful.

Your relationship with your Agency

I said I’d come back to the relationship between charity and agency.

I observe that, when choosing an agency today, common practice is for a series of chemistry meetings which the agency has to prepare for. Then a competitive pitch. The cost of all of this is eventually charged back to the charities and so comes out of donor income that could be being spent on beneficiaries. Once appointed, the agency may have to re-pitch every few years. All to meet the ego of the charity client.

I had a different approach. Within my first year, and after one meeting with the principals, I appointed WWAV and Saatchi & Saatchi. During my 30 years neither of them was asked to re-pitch. I told them we were joined at the hip.

Once every five years a company called Agency Insight would be employed to crawl all over the numbers, challenge every piece of expenditure and re-negotiate our payment terms. They were a huge value. And it never affected the ongoing relationship between the charity team and the agency team.

That deals with the finances. You will know whether the relationship is working and the output is good. If it isn’t, insist on a change of people within the Agency. If that doesn’t work, change agencies.

If chemistry meetings and competitive pitches were removed, just imagine how much money would be saved, and beneficiaries helped?


My thoughts on what we can learn from Giles’ experience can be read here.