A personal message

One leading advertising agency is helping wage war on guns, says Julia Brown
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The Independent Online

The advertising industry is not often bracketed among the caring professions. For many outsiders, Richard E Grant perfectly caricatured the members of ad-land in the film How to Get Ahead in Advertising, when he played Denis Bagley, a creative genius so consumed with greed and consumerism that a giant talking boil grows out of his neck and then turns into his social conscience.

But Chris Hirst, managing director of Grey London, is trying to change that. Grey's latest campaign, which features a simple, stark image of a young man's bedroom, will not earn the company a penny.

The bedroom belongs to Damien Cope, who was 22 when he was shot dead outside a London nightclub on 29 July, 2002. After the murder, Damien's mother, Lucy, locked his room and left it so. But, four weeks ago, she agreed to allow the photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin to capture the room frozen in time. Their work is designed to show how hard it is for mothers to move on with their lives in the wake of such a tragedy.

Since then, Grey staff have been working, in their own time, to turn one of the images into a poster for the campaign group, Mothers Against Guns (MAG). This is not the behaviour one might immediately associate with people who have the image of working for whoever is prepared to pay, and then partying hard with the proceeds. But Hirst says: "People who work in advertising are just like everyone else. We have 250 people here and many of them feel very passionately about social issues." It is simply good employment practice, he argues, to let staff follow those instincts.

"A lot of people feel very strongly about giving some of their expertise back to the community. Advertising agencies are full of people who are very able and have a specific set of skills. I genuinely believe that healthy working cultures, whether in advertising agencies, merchant banks or supermarkets, should encourage people to not only do their jobs but also follow their passions."

For a small organisation, such as MAG, the support of a leading advertising agency is invaluable. Publicity is the most obvious thing that Grey can provide.

"Like a lot of charities and groups they are competing for air space," says Hirst. "Unfortunately, that's the world we live in and, inevitably, they can't buy their way to fame by spending £10m on television time. They need to be smart, fleet of foot, persistent and passionate to get their message across. We've got people in this company who want to do that for them."

The image of Damien's room is more than just a photograph that the mothers could have taken themselves. "Taking a good photograph is an art," says Hirst. "You need to light it properly, it has to be cropped, it needs to have the right messages put on it and to be typeset."

Other advertising skills can provide a tiny organisation with the image of a far larger entity. "We can help from a packaging point of view," says Hirst. "We helped design the logo for them and we helped design their business card." The MAG logo is an Uzi sub-machine gun struck through with a red cross. "It's not a complicated thing for us to do, yet it gives a high return in their minds because it enables them to look like a proper organisation. People take them seriously."

Grey also made a film with MAG, depicting children playing in the woods with cap guns and ending up dead. The film, called Toys That Kill, has a voiceover by Dame Helen Mirren and highlights the fact that many lethal weapons on the streets are replica guns that have been converted to fire real bullets. It helps the mothers - who are campaigning for a ban on replica guns and a 10-year minimum sentence for possession - to get their message across in meetings.

Big-time advertising is another matter. Buying media space is an expensive business, and beyond the means of such a small organisation. Hirst says: "We've tried very hard to get some free air coverage but I'm sure media owners have an awful lot of people trying to get free coverage on a daily basis."

The relationship between the agency and MAG began when Julian Douglas, then a Grey account director, met the mothers and became convinced of the value of their cause. Although Douglas is no longer with Grey, the agency has stuck by the project because of the level of commitment of the staff members involved. Hirst says: "We didn't have a debate on whether this was a better or worse cause than anything else. We just felt that if we were to spend our time on it and be involved in it we would be able to make a bit of a difference."

Few would argue with the potential value of the campaign. There were 10,000 firearms incidents in England and Wales last year, and 97 gun-related murders. The Metropolitan Police reports that 72 per cent of guns seized in its area are replica weapons.

Maureen Lynch of MAG says that Grey's help has transformed the campaign."I thought the advertising industry would be one of the last avenues that would be made available to us. I wouldn't have thought they would want to be associated with guns and violence. But it has been fantastic to have their skills. There is no way in the world an organisation like ours could have afforded to buy that sort of talent."

The mothers travel regularly to the Grey offices in the heart of ad-land, north of London's Oxford Street, to hold meetings and plan their publicity drives. "They provide us with offices that we could not afford," says Lynch. "We are given notepads and projectors - they treat us as if we were paying clients."

But she realises that the advertising people are getting something out of the relationship too - a reality check. "We need them but they also need us because they need to have contact with the real world, and they need to speak to real people," she says.