The Ad Council has changed from a sleepy philanthropic clearinghouse to an immediate- response team that snaps into action when crisis hits.
After 9/11, an Ad Council team of producers took a train from New York to Washington to film a public-service announcement with First Lady Laura Bush, encouraging parents to comfort their children about the terrible events of that day. Planes weren’t flying, and New York City was all but shut down, but producers managed to get the spot on the air within days.
A short while later, The Ad Council teamed with Austin, Texas, advertising agency GSD&M to create the iconic and award-winning campaign, “I Am an American,” which highlighted the diversity of this nation’s population; it began appearing nine days after the 9/11 tragedy. The campaign was later showered with industry awards, and agency President Roy Spence says the pro bono campaign was the most important work his agency had ever done.
More recently, when the networks, food manufacturers and fast-food restaurants were getting beaten up over the obesity of America’s children, Ad Council Chief Peggy Conlon contacted such broadcast honchos as NBC Universal President of Sales and Marketing Keith Turner, CBS Executive VP Martin Franks and ABC President of Network Operations and Administration Alex Wallau. Working with their networks, the Ad Council quickly put together a campaign to educate American families about the dangers of childhood obesity. Within four months, the campaign had earned $25 million in donated media; a year in, it has received more than $100 million.
“What’s even more important than the speed of our response,” Conlon says, “is the relevance of it.”
Perhaps The Ad Council’s most public spot is its most recent one, which put former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton on after the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, asking Americans to help. The spot was put together on 24-hour notice from the White House.
The Ad Council, under Conlon, goes to media companies annually and “sells” them an upfront package of donated time. Doing so, the organization has succeeded in getting a $120 million commitment from Clear Channel and a $40 million commitment from Time Warner for donated media.
“It’s about being sensitive to the environment in this country,” Conlon says. “It’s keeping your finger on the pulse and making value judgments as to when you go above and beyond with your response.”