The president of the Advertising Council knows she can't rely on the largess of the media to get ad exposure for her nonprofit clients. In 1996 the Ad Council received about $928 million of media space and time, and 1997 won't be any better.
"We're going backwards in terms of media opportunity," she told me. "We did better when there were only three networks."
So rather than wait, hat-in-hand for the media to run the Ad Council's stuff, Ruth is playing the role of the collaborator, involved in the creative process, strategy, research, cause marketing -- "unlike anything I've ever done."
Ruth is beginning to realize that the Ad Council's name and reputation -- not to mention the name and reputation of its clients -- can give credibility to any advertiser, so she and her colleagues are figuring out how to work with marketers to develop "longterm sponsorships" for the council's nonprofit clients, such as the Urban League.
"I'm telling clients not to give their credibility away too cheaply," Ruth told me. "Good nonprofits have great credibility and ruboff value: Talk about brands!"
Last fall I wrote somewhat facetiously about how the American Medical Association could have extracted itself from an embarrassing endorsement deal with Sunbeam. I suggested that Sunbeam and the AMA donate some of the money earned from the product endorsements to run PSA spots on children (a major cause of the Ad Council). The Ad Council, I said, should break with precedent and say the spots "were brought to you by the AMA-Sunbeam Alliance for Children in cooperation with the Ad Council."
As it turns out, that is just what Ruth has in mind. She also wants to form "close partnerships" with the big media companies, and she thinks it wouldn't be inappropriate if the Ad Council were to get a cut if it put together a sponsorship deal between a nonprofit and an advertiser brought in signed, sealed and delivered to the media company.
She visualizes working with radio and TV station groups to adapt national PSAs to the local market. The Ad Council will have done the research and strategy work on the campaign, and it could work with local ad agencies and stations to write and produce the spots or the station could run the spot as it appeared nationally with a hole in the middle for local adoption or with a voiceover from a local anchor.
All of the above is what Ruth is telling her team she wants to do. Here's some new things the Ad Council is doing now.
"Help Me Grow" is a statewide initiative being tested in Ohio that adapts an Ad Council campaign to address local issues and explores "leveraged" paid advertising. The idea, Ruth says, is to develop a sustainable -- it takes a lot of money -- longterm model that bridges donated and paid media. The Ohio state government will purchase media time at favorable rates for messages that are directly relevant to the community.
One of the problems with getting Ad Council PSAs on the air is that the TV networks have started doing their own, such as NBC-TV's "The More You Know" series using its sitcom stars. The Ad Council is working with the networks to use Ad Council client messages in the networks' spots.
And Ruth says the council is developing integrated marketing campaigns with Fox Kids and CBS Kids. Its also getting into the documentary business and is not averse to letting stations or networks make a buck on the programs.
The idea in all of this is to get the nonprofits' message out any way that works.
"We've got to do whatever it takes," Ruth told me. "We may not be your father's Ad Council anymore, but we are still agents of change in public opinion, social awareness and action."