Bouncy Castles, Free Food and the FT
A couple of years ago, I was manning a bouncy castle as part of a Messy Church event in Cricklewood – a Saturday afternoon when people who wouldn't normally come to church can come and check out the place while their kids mess about with paint and clay and cake decoration. While I made sure that the kids didn't kill themselves on our giant inflatable, a man in a motorbike helmet walked in. "This is Chas" I heard someone say, pointing at me.
The man was Martin Stone, a lecturer by day and director of Muswell Hill Soup Kitchen by night. And he'd heard that I was "in advertising". If you too are "in advertising", you will no doubt have been bombarded throughout your career with friends, uncles and other budget-free entities wanting publicity in exchange for beer. Mostly, these projects take far longer than planned, involve coercing other busy mates into working just for the joy of it, and end up a complete nightmare.
And so it was with a large dose of trepidation that I learned from Martin that he had "had an idea". This idea was an app that directs homeless people to their nearest soup kitchen or other free food outlet in London, and Martin had corralled a neighbour who worked at Google to design it for him. Sean Locke, another neighbour was ready to be a willing spokesperson. Clearly Martin was not your typical budget-free client.
I told him that he had a great product and all he needed to do is get a bit of PR. With no advertising budget to play with, he was dependent on free publicity and word of mouth. I suggested some news channels and he made a mental note to organise a press conference with Sean Locke and Lee Mack who must also live somewhere near Muswell Hill and who Martin knows.
The beauty of Martin’s idea, and one which he hadn’t grasped until our bouncy castle meeting, was that it taps into the reluctance felt by many Londoners to hand over money to beggars in case their honest-earned cash finds its way into the hands of international drug lords. Many of us want to help the people we see on the street but currently, our only option is to offer money or food.
The app provides Londoners with a tool which they know will help someone who is genuinely hungry. Better still, I suggested, why not print a card with the nextmeal website on it? Many homeless people have phones, and giving a card instead of money allows people access to free food wherever they go. What’s more, If Londoners can hand out cards instead of money, they feel like they are actually helping rather than walking past someone because they can’t be sure of where their pound is going to end up.
As far as a I know, this was the only ‘ideas’ meeting I had with Martin. I might have read him some copy over the phone to go on the card, or advised him of the key points to talk about when journalists come calling. At no point did I ever open a laptop, let alone write anything.
Fast forward a year and I’m in Muswell Hill Baptist Church at a PR event where Catherine West, MP for Hornsey and Wood Green is handing Martin an award from Theresa May. Nextmeal has escaped the confines of the capital and has gone nationwide as well as launching in Dublin, Milan and Madrid. It has been written about in the Big Issue, Time Out and the FT. I’m called up on stage as the man behind the app’s outrageous success and deliver an impromptu speech which I am wholly unprepared (and unqualified) to make.
It’s funny how, when the right people are in the room, casual advice freely given can be taken, modified and moulded until it becomes something tangible. My conversation with Martin at our church family day is the most productive five minutes work I have ever done. It will probably affect far more people than any other product or service I have advertised and, as I am reminded every time Martin calls to tell me the latest celebrity he has found to endorse his app or the latest city nextmeal has rolled out in, it is also by far the most appreciated.
Find your nearest free food at nextmeal.co.uk