From the Archives: Lessons from Live Aid

By Damian O'Broin - Jul 15 2021

Note: This post originally appeared on the old Ask Direct blog 11 years ago, on the 14 July 2006, and was inspired by the BBC documentary about Live Aid and an email exchange between myself and Ken Burnett about his recollections of the time. Live Aid was a seminal moment for my generation...for music, media, entertainment, gloabalisation and mobilisation. Looking back now from the perspective of today, there are undoubtedly issues around the imagery and messaging, the white saviourism is undeniable, and the poor representation of people of colour on stage - especially at Wembley - is striking. But it's also a key part of our fundraising history (as you can see on SOFII and IWITOT 2012). So here's what I wrote a decade ago. And if the 25th anniversary was making me feel old, you can imagine how rickety I feel looking back 36 years...


By chance last night I discovered that yesterday was the 25th anniversary of Live Aid (explanatory link included for any readers under the age of 30).


25 years. A quarter of a century. Wow.


There was an interesting documentary on BBC4, Live Aid: Against All Odds about the genesis of the concert. Viewable here if you live in the UK.


I still remember the whole day clearly, sat on the sofa in the front room, having commandeered the telly from indifferent parents and a half interested sister. It was a momentous event for the music business, for the acts involved, for the world of media (they used eight satellites for the broadcast; the previous year’s Olympics had used just two), for the milllions upon millions of people watching, and for the charity world as well.


Watching the programme last night was interesting - not just for the nostalgia - as I think it contained several important lessons for fundraisers today.


Now back in 1985 I wasn’t a fundraiser, just a pimply U2 fan with a bad haircut and a questionable taste in clothes, so I have no first hand knowledge of the sector as it was then, and the impact Live Aid had on the charity world. To get a flavour of the time, I asked Ken Burnett for his recollections. And he responded with such grace and eloquence that I felt I should quote him at length. Here’s some of what he remembers…


"Seems like the day before yesterday, to be honest. In 1984 I was still fairly fresh out of ActionAid, where I had done a lot on disaster advertising and considered myself a bit of a quick mover, able to get the right ads and sizes into the right media at the right price at the first sign of trouble, or really soon after. I was working with several major charity clients and with Smith Bundy and Partners, George Smith’s agency, while I set about building my own agency, Burnett Associates. We were still based in the front room of my house in Finsbury Park when the Band Aid story broke. As I recall it, Band Aid came first, Live Aid was later. The exact chronology of the Christmas hits eludes me, but then I never really liked them.
What I remember most from back then was the excruciatingly graphic TV reports from Michael Buerk filmed by Mohammed Amin, which sparked Band Aid.... The thing was that back then disasters were always supposed to appear on our TV screens over a few days, then to be quickly supplanted by other, more immediate news once the initial sympathy had faded. But Ethiopia was a different order of magnitude and it persisted, night after night after night. There was a palpable feeling in the air that something must be done, and Bob Geldof just grabbed it. At the time every line of accepted thinking was against such an event, but he just said, ‘Why the fuck not?’
I loved that attitude. It inspired everything we did. It still does."

That passion and determination was tangible in the documentary. Geldof was a washed-up, big-mouthed rock star who just decided to do something, whatever he could, to respond to the horror unfolding before him in Ethiopia. And we should remember that impluse, that passion, because surely it gives us an insight into the motivation to give.


And if you think that it’s a bit of a stretch to compare a humble €50 gift in a pre-paid envelope to the organisation of an era-defining international event, well, it shouldn’t be. And perhaps that’s the problem with too much of our fundraising today. It’s mechanised, formulaic, routine. It shouldn’t be. It should be passionate, urgent and thrilling.


The other thing about Geldof was, as Ken says, his ‘Why the fuck not’ attitude. That’s something worth remembering the next time somebody tells you ‘it can’t be done’. And that attitude of thinking big, of trying to do something that every sane person thought was impossible, because it had to be done, because the need was so great. That’s something we need to hold onto. You may not be dealing with with the scale of death and devastation that Michael Buerk showed us back in 1984, but I’m sure what you are dealing with is important, and may indeed be a matter of life or death.


Are you happy to just tip along, meet your targets and have a quiet life, or do you want to change the world? If it’s the latter, then you’re going to need that ‘why the fuck not’ attitude.


Geldof probably took it to the extreme. When he announced the lineup, he still didn’t have most acts confirmed, but he went ahead anyway and told the world that they’d be playing. Bryan Ferry phoned him up and said ‘I never said I’d play’ to which Geldof retorted ‘well, pull out then’. He didn’t.


Here’s some more from Ken…


"Burnett Associates didn’t have its own design studio at the time and I was working with a freelance group called Bradbury & Williams who, apart from designing brochures, posters, ads and direct mail packs for me and my charities also designed and produced coffee table books, including the two Live Aid books and Bob Geldof’s autobiography, Is that it? So we felt quite close to the events – I never met Geldof at the studio but once sat in a chair he’d recently vacated. It was still warm. I treasure the sensation.
At this time I was heavily involved with the NSPCC, one of our major clients on many fronts. It was their Centenary year, of course. To be honest I wasn’t working directly at that time with anyone working in Ethiopia. One event from 1984 was the Bhopal disaster, which is reported on SOFII.
Bhopal was significant because we had to decide to run our emergency ads alongside all the competing noise from Band Aid. This was when I learned that one disaster could actually help to promote another."


Good advice. And still very much true.


Then, I did some round–up work with Oxfam, writing letters that reported to their donors on what their gifts for Ethiopia had achieved. I loved that brief. At the time I was heavily into monthly giving as a concept, though it was not widely understood in the UK then, except by the likes of ActionAid. I was sure that charities should be switching their donors to monthly giving, and how better to make the case than in the aftermath of a disaster? ‘We’ve mopped up’, we could say, ‘now help us rebuild’.
But not everyone was receptive to this message.
In 1985 George Smith and I jointly wrote a five-page feature for Direct Response magazine on the aftermath of the Ethiopian emergency, as development people liked to call it. In this polemic piece we were savagely critical of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and its member charities, who we had discovered were dumping donors addresses by the thousands because they couldn’t agree which member charity should ‘own’ them. So donors were not only not being properly thanked, they were being denied any reporting back and follow-up. The argument was completely lost on the powers that be at DEC, who couldn’t understand why you might want to thank or follow up a donor. ‘Waste of money, surely.’ They are, of course, little more than a big and expensive bucket for collecting cash. Little did I realise then that I would be castigating them for pretty much the same set of sins, 20 years later, in The Guardian"


25 years ago, enlightened people like Ken and George were urging charities to provide real donor feedback - and charities like Oxfam were doing it. Clearly, lots of people didn’t get it then, and sadly lots of people still don’t seem to get it. Or they get it, but couldn’t be bothered to do it. Which, to be honest, is far, far worse.


Live Aid seems to have had its origins in the notion of donor feedback. After Band Aid, Geldof felt he’s done his bit. He was rejected proposals from the media to go the Ethiopia, but eventually relented when one of his trustees argued that he needed to go to demonstrate to donors that the aid was getting through, that their gifts would make a difference. Reluctantly, Bob went. The trip changed everything.


Geldof put Live Aid together in the space of 12 weeks. That’s often what we’ll spend producing a campaign for a client. Hmmm. He did it in the face of disbelief, disinterest and antagonism. It could have been a shambles. Luckily, and thankfully, it wasn’t.


"Rather like marching against Blair and Bush’s war, the power of the masses wasn’t perhaps as enduring as it seemed it would be, at the time. But it wasn’t half thrilling. In truth though I was so wrapped up in building a struggling new agency that I didn’t do as much as I could have done for Ethiopia, nor for the fight against Apartheid. I regret both of these, now.
As a result of this preoccupation I don’t think I can comment too much on what the sector thought of Bob & Co at the time. I recall a lot of noses were turned up at the scruffy oiks who used all that bad language. But this soon gave way to respect and amazement at what these amateurs actually achieved.
For me I think this was the time when I conceived an unswerving belief in the power of the donor and the paramount need for good feedback, prompt acknowledgement and the rigorous offering of electronic banking facilities. Those were also new, back then.
Ah, those were the days! Maybe we should preserve our history…"


It’s interesting to consider the role of ‘amateurs’ in situations like this. Impassioned amateurs like Geldof bring a drive, a freshness, and an attitude that’s often missing from established actors. Could Oxfam have produced Live Aid? Not a chance. Could Geldof have done what he did by working through Oxfam? Probably not.


Right through to today you see independent, entrepreneurial philanthropists and activists doing their own thing. But there are clearly times when this approach merely duplicates the effort of others. And other times when despite an initial fanfare, the new, entrepreneur-driven organisation isn’t capable of delivering and managing a sustainable programme of work. The challenge for established NGOs and charities is to find a way of cultivating that risk taking, entrepreneurial spirit within their ranks.


As I write, I’m watching the second part of the documentary, about the day itself, and Geldof is telling us ‘Don’t go to the pub tonight, give us your money. There are people DYING NOW.’ [stamps table]


He was enraged at what he saw as the old-school, cosy, charity feel of the day. He didn’t see it as charity, he saw it as ‘finely tuned politics’. And he believed the amount raised at that point was pathetic, and not enough calls to action were being broadcast. So he marched into the BBC, tore strips off them, and made his now infamous appeal to the world.


Watching I’m reminded of all the conversations I’ve had where apparently sensible people who work in charities argue that not asking for money is the best way to raise money. How we’re asking too often, too strongly, for too much, or too specifically. Well, as Bob Geldof will tell you, that just doesn’t work. If you want money, you have to say ‘Give us your money. There are people dying now.’ And you should really try to muster up even an ounce of Geldof’s rage and passion when you’re saying it.


Now for some music. And some more. And we can't forget this one. Or this one

Tagged with: angerhistory

Damian O'Broin     @damianobroin


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