Listening to Your Audience
18th September by Imogen Ward
This week we were proud to announce that fundraising and communications agency Audience is joining the AAW Partnership Group to create a new division and offer for our clients.
Audience’s founder and director, George Milne is joining our company in a key role focused around client experience. George is a highly dedicated fundraising and marketing professional with over 20 years of experience working with more than 100 clients. George was Managing Director at direct marketing agency TW CAT up until 2013 when she founded Audience.
George talks about what this new partnership means for her and for all our clients. George also reflects on some key issues facing charities today in terms of strategy and planning.
Tell us a bit about your personal background
My initial passion was always around international development. I have also always been a marketer at heart, studying marketing at university, so fundraising came naturally to me – unlike many people 20 years ago, I intentionally moved into fundraising for a career. I’ve always been agency side which has suited me well because I love the variety of working with lots of different clients and the opportunities to be innovative and creative, but also to be quite analytical. Data and analysis have always been very much at the heart of my approach to fundraising; putting the audience first and having an insight-led approach is essential to all that I do. My love of fundraising and the sector has never disappeared.
When I was Managing Director at TW CAT (now On Agency), I gained brilliant experience and a huge skill set in fundraising as a result of working with so many clients and brands. You could be working on Barnardo’s or Cancer Research one day, then a small regional charity the next. I learnt a lot about the differences in terms of brand awareness and the implications that has on fundraising, with bigger brands able to have a wide appeal to mass audiences and smaller organisations working in the same field without the same brand awareness having to work much harder on their proposition to explain themselves and appealing perhaps to a more niche audience.
Can you explain why you set up your company Audience
I really enjoyed my time as the Managing Director at TW CAT but as the agency got bigger, I was less directly involved with clients – a part of the job I loved.
I was really clear that I wanted to set up my own practice that was able to stay very, very close to my clients’ work and move away from the model of volume driven fundraising and certain data practices that were being questioned around the time of the Olive Cooke case. I also wanted to explore with my clients, different models of working that would integrate fundraising more with marketing, and focus on digital and develop propositions that would work across all channels.
So, I set up Audience in 2013 but the early days are a bit blurry given I had my first son in 2012 and my second in 2014!
AAW’s Tobin Aldrich joined Audience in 2016 in a non-executive capacity. Tobin had been a client of mine in the long-term at TW CAT through a range of different charity roles. Bringing him on board at Audience meant we could combine Tobin’s strengths in strategy and mine in implementation and planning.
I think the current model in the sector where consultants, with huge amounts of experience advise charities for a temporary period of time or project, cannot be accountable for the outcome. Working in partnership with Tobin meant we could support teams on strategy but also deliver their plans to achieve that strategy as well. That was our vision back in 2016 and this new partnership with AAW formalises that.
Supporting strategy and its delivery is a model that works; for two of our initial clients at Audience using this approach we not only saw a rise in their income but we saw a change in their working practices and culture, plus an investment in digital channels transforming their approach to IG and breaking down the silos between comms and fundraising.
Ideas are Audience’s bread and butter and expertise but what is really important to us is storytelling and themes that act as an umbrella to pull different areas of work together and therefore generate a narrative for our clients which is consistent and which can really inspire their supporters. For example, we’re currently working on an advocacy campaign for a homelessness organisation in Ireland and we will look to integrate that theme into their Christmas appeal. Rather than having siloed messaging, we want to ensure that there is a seamless narrative between advocacy and fundraising and to what people are hearing about from that charity.
How do you feel about the merger with AAW?
I’m really excited about the prospect of working more directly with AAW. I’ve always had a great relationship with Tobin and to be part of something bigger means more opportunities to bounce ideas off and learn from one another. It also allows us to provide a much better service for our clients. At Audience we had a network of associates we brought in for different jobs depending on the expertise needed but now I have expertise on tap, it’s great. But I also still get the opportunity to be externally facing with my clients and carry on doing what I love.
What do you think the new AAW Audience division now brings to clients?
The main benefit of the new division bringing our skills and expertise together to me is being able to offer more comprehensive support in moving from strategy to planning. That will be a real strength and value to clients to address the key transitional point between coming up with a long-term, visionary strategy and working out a roadmap of what that strategy looks like within particular income streams or how it is integrated across those different streams. We can help with planning activities off the back of the strategic objectives that are required to meet your strategic vision, to look at KPIs you might need to set on a quarterly basis for your 1st year objective for example, whether you have the right infrastructure in place, the right technology and skill sets. What does your comms map look like? What is the channel map going to be? What is the creative messaging? It’s a very exciting process.
At Audience, we can also help with actual delivery of those plans, working with the skills and resources that our clients have in-house. We have a virtual creative and data studio of freelancers that we use on a regular basis with different skill sets that can be matched to specific jobs.
And then of course, there is our knowledge of and brand awareness in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland that we bring to AAW.
How important is strategy to AAW and Audience?
I talked earlier about the difference between strategy and planning. Strategy is at the heart of what both companies do and the new partnership means a seamless journey between strategy and actual delivery, with a new level of accountability for us as a team to make sure that whatever strategy we work with, we can deliver it and demonstrate results.
Audience has always been strategy-driven, whether that is creating strategies for developing income streams or coming up with a strategy to deal with a particular problem a client has; it has become a core part of our product mix. Clients see the value of strategic work much more now, knowing it is integral to ensuring change is generated within their programmes.
How do you think Covid has impacted on charities in terms of strategy and planning?
From what I can see across the industry people seem to be going one of two ways: some charities are really grabbing the potential opportunities of the changing world. Covid has almost given them a bit of freedom to try new things, as nobody knows what is going to happen in the future. So, there is a need for people to be innovative and try new things. I’ve seen some amazing things come out of the sector recently and that’s something we are trying to champion.
But some leaders are adopting an almost hiding under a rock approach, thinking that Covid will move on, but the fact is that the situation won’t – hopefully we will get to the stage where we can manage Covid, but the economic crisis and the change in people’s buying and consumer habits and their relationships with the charity sector have changed significantly.
People need to grasp that now and invest in their fundraising. The charity sector has an economic model and level of profit margin that no commercial sector would work to. Fundraisers are expected to make huge profit margins with the majority of income spent on services. That is obviously fantastic but if often means there is a lot of cost cutting and lack of investment because of that pressure. I’ve always been a big advocate for charities taking a step back and to spend time planning in terms of what it is they want to achieve, looking at what areas they need to invest in whether that is technology, people or support to deliver what they want in the long-term.
I know that’s a tough ask, but people need to be brave now in making those cases to their boards. But I also personally understand as a trustee myself that you are tackling this alongside increased demand on your services and you need more funding now – there are difficult decisions to be made. But hopefully ones, AAW can help with!