What charities should learn from Whitewater’s demise

The news this week that Whitewater, the specialist charity agency, is going into liquidation is good news for no-one. The industry needs all its agencies to thrive.

It is VERY hard to run and manage and agency profitably these days. That applies to big and small. Whitewater fished in a single pool – charities – which made it vulnerable to a downturn in the sector. And if you are operating with a long lease and a number of senior staff on commensurate benefits, it can be very hard to reduce your cost base quickly enough once income falls (I’ve no idea if that was the case with Whitewater).

A single sector focus delivers expertise but I’ve never been convinced that it is healthy. Or that it actually delivers the best results. Charity clients can benefit from learnings gained on commercial brands as B2B clients can learn from consumer brands (an exception to this is probably pharmaceuticals with its specific technical demands and regulations).

I’ve always thought expertise in a discipline makes sense, be it customer acquisition or retention, direct marketing, PR, brand advertising as these are requirements demanded by all types of clients. I can understand why charity clients are seduced by a proposition of “we only do charities” but then they are more likely to get a formulaic ‘charity’ answer. That may well be what they’re after, but these days the old formula and traditional media don’t work as they did.

Furthermore, if you are a smaller charity client amongst some big ones you are unlikely to get the service or attention of those bigger names. On the other hand, if you are a small charity at an agency that perhaps has only one other charity client, you are more likely to receive disproportionately good service, if nothing else than for the creative opportunities you provide.

In the meantime, I send my best wishes to the staff and founders of Whitewater and hope they all find suitable employment very soon.



  • Stephen Lynch

    While I understand how you came to your conclusions Chris, from where I’m standing (in a queue at the Job Centre) I’m afraid you’ve got things back to front. From an insider’s perspective, the key factor behind Whitewater’s demise was our owners/leaders putting far too little store by charity specific expertise. Our leaders paid too much attention to what commercial advertisers were doing, allowing the agency to develop a kind of institutional inferority complex; craning our necks towards the bright lights of the ‘BIG’ commercial agancies when we should have been getting our heads down and developing the bespoke approaches our charity partners needed. I’d never suggest any agency cannot learn from other sectors, but surely the priority is to first know your own field inside-out? And to be honest, while there are some honourable exceptions, commercial agencies just don’t do charity very well.

    Perhaps the saddest thing is we had a wealth of talented people who could have, given top-level encouragement and support, taken Whitewater forward as a sector-leading charity agency. But they just weren’t listened to…



      That’s a very interesting comment and I bow to your superior insight. However, surely the trick is to take lessons from the commercial sector and adapt them as appropriate.

      For instance we might understand the principles of customer acquisition from our credit card client but we adapt them as appropriate when executing an acquisition campaign for a different client.

      What I do know is that is very hard for agency leaders to get direction right. Client demands constantly change and I can quite understand why, in Whitewater’s case, they might want to follow the commercial ‘bright lights’ when they could see the charity sector declining. But it is hard to make that leap if you don’t speak the right language. As it is hard (as you rightly observe) for agencies to ‘talk charity’ if they are only used to commercial brands.

      Much more importantly, I hope you are not in the Job Centre queue for long and that you find a suitable post  – agency or client side – very soon. Best wishes.

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