By Robert Whittle, chairman and CEO at Williams Whittle

The business world is full of professionals, some of whom do brilliant work, which is almost always appreciated by their clients, but not by the public at large. The doctor with a sharp diagnosis; the lawyer with a penetrating brief; the CPA with a plan to save a client a bundle through his or her understanding of the tax laws. Consider the ad agency creative person—his or her work is, by design, made to be seen by thousands and often millions of people, all of whom have opinions, and all of whom may have only thirty seconds to form them. Client and agency reputations hang in the balance and bottom lines can rise or fall with the impact, or lack thereof.

Ad agency pros are acutely aware of all of this. It drives us to be the best we can be because of the public nature of our work. Last year, we were asked by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) to create a public service announcement (PSA) on their behalf. TAPS was founded by Bonnie Carroll twenty-five years ago after she lost her Air Force spouse in a military training accident. Bonnie and her team have created programs and services to (as their name suggests) aid and comfort military families who have lost a loved one in military service. It can be a dad, a mom, a brother or a friend who has perished in defense of their country. Increasingly, death by suicide due to PTSD and other factors is the cause.

TAPS is all about emotion, and to engage audiences and make them feel was a primary goal stated in the creative brief. On the one hand, the assignment was professionally thrilling; on the other hand, it was a solemn and daunting task. We had to tell a story that struck just the right balance of respect, emotion and information. If the story we told made viewers cry, then we knew we could engage them in this great cause. The TAPS staff would, of course, be the initial judges of whether or not we succeeded.

We set to work and created eight concepts via storyboards and scripts. They ranged from highly emotional to relatively straightforward informational spots. Our goal was to make it difficult for TAPS to choose because there were so many excellent concepts. On the appointed day, we crammed into a small conference room with seven or so TAPS people and began to present our concepts. After the second one, one woman got up and left the room only to return with a box of tissues. That was a good sign that we were hitting the emotional hot buttons.

Out of the eight concepts, there were two winners that they chose to take to production. Both were emotionally charged, but one in particular told a story based on true events. The story is of a girl who is on camera talking to her mom about everyday events in her life, the camera then pulls back to reveal that she’s at her mom’s graveside in an Arlington-type cemetery. She concludes with the words, “I love you. See you next week.” Click here to view the spot.

As always, getting approval on a concept is only step one. Then come bidding, casting, location scouting, and the other thousand details involved in shooting a spot. Also, in the case of a PSA, there’s outreach to TV stations and networks to persuade them to run the spots. It is not for me to judge whether or not we pulled off the shoot successfully (OK, I think we did). I do know that it ran to the tune of millions of dollars in media value on networks and spot markets across the country. As usual the public is the ultimate judge of our work. Did the donations come in? Did the web visits increase? All of the metrics tell the story because creative is meant to be seen. And judged.

To support TAPS, visit

For more “Ideas that Generate Change for Nonprofits”, visit our website

Williams Whittle is a Capitol Communicator sponsor.


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