Interview: Seamus O'Farrell

The director of communications at Prostate Cancer UK argues that the small screen is still the best medium to raise awareness

Seamus O'Farrell
Seamus O'Farrell

It might feel as if most of the sector is championing social media as the best way to communicate with the public, but Prostate Cancer UK's director of communications argues that television advertising is still king.

Seamus O'Farrell, a former ad man who worked at some of the UK's biggest agencies, including Leo Burnett and BBDO, advises charities to invest in TV advertising if they want to become part of the public consciousness. "Television is the daddy," he says. "We are watching more of it than ever before and advert avoidance is no greater than it was 20 years ago. If you want to get onto the national radar quickly and meaningfully, TV is key."

O'Farrell is quick to point out that digital is an important part of the marketing mix, but says people "only go to your digital interfaces if it's an issue that they care enough about".

National consciousness

He believes charities need to use commercial marketing techniques. "It's key to understand how consumers view brands and the truth is they don't care that much about them. That's why skilful marketing is important. The most important thing is that people think of you, not what they think about you. You need to get into the national consciousness."

O'Farrell joined the cancer charity as its first director of communications in June 2011, after spending several months consulting for companies.

He says he left the advertising agency world because he was bored. "I was approached by several charities but I wasn't interested in many, because you want to find an issue that fits with a sense of outrage you might have or that you're indignant about. Prostate cancer had always interested me because it's as big an issue for blokes as breast cancer is for women."

Charity rebrand

O'Farrell has overseen some major changes at the charity. The biggest was a rebrand that dropped the word 'charity' from its name.

"We found that recently diagnosed men were googling 'prostate cancer' and we were coming top of the search, but they weren't clicking on us," says O'Farrell. "My hypothesis was that if you're a middle-class bloke who's left the doctor and you're trying to find out about prostate cancer, the last thing you're going to click on is something called 'charity', because charities are where well-intentioned amateurs work, in the public's perception."

Further analysis revealed that the charity's culture was "polite, muffled, middle class and distanced". O'Farrell says this had to change: "We needed to man up and get stronger and bolder. We weren't masculine enough in our representation of blokes."

Increase awareness

With the new name pinned down last summer, the charity planned a major three-month campaign, fronted by comedian Bill Bailey, that was launched on New Year's Day. It was designed to increase awareness of the charity and put it among the 'biggies' of breast cancer, heart disease and lung cancer, says O'Farrell.

And the Sledgehammer Fund campaign appears to have done just that. It is estimated to have reached more than 90 per cent of the adult population between 1 January and the end of March this year, according to the audience measurement service Barb, with calls to the charity's helpline up by 40 per cent and visits to its website up by 137 per cent.

"The campaign has been a career first and a highlight," says O'Farrell. "We've achieved more than our wildest dreams."

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