WASHINGTON, D.C., February 22—Government agencies are not always the most profitable clients in the world, but at a time when other markets are contracting, increased spending on public education programs makes social marketing an attractive target for expansion-minded firms such as Fleishman-Hillard, which this week formalized its social marketing offering and named behavioral scientist Beverly Schwartz leader of the Washington, D.C.-based practice.

Fleishman-Hillard has been working with the Office of National Drug Control Policy for the past three years, managing the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, and is also handling social marketing programs for the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency. Social marketing accounts for about $6.5 million of revenues in the D.C. office alone—about 20 percent of the total—and F-H has additional social marketing capabilities in New York, St. Louis, Kansas City and Sacramento.

The practice is also strengthened by Fleishman-Hillard’s recent acquisition of issues advertising specialist Greer Margolis Mitchell Burns.& Associates. Greer has extensive experience in the social marketing arena, having partnered with F-H on the ONDCP account and also handled tobacco and family health issues. Greer has an additional $5 million in social marketing revenues.

“What makes this interesting to me is the focus on the bottom line of changing behavior,” says Schwartz, a senior vice president in Fleishman’s D.C. office and a veteran of social marketing campaigns dealing with smoking, AIDS, literacy, adoption, education reform and other issues. “This is an area where raising awareness or changing attitudes is not enough. You have to be able to change behaviors to make a difference.”

Schwartz, who heads the ONDCP account, previously served as VP of social marketing for the Academy for Educational Development and was the first person ever to be titled “social marketing specialist” by the federal government, a designation she received when working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1987 to 1992.

“We have a six-stage approach to social marketing,” says Schwartz. “The first is raising awareness of the problem, then comes creating knowledge about the problem and helping people understand the relevance of the problem to themselves. That’s the easy part, because that’s what PR typically does. The next three stages are the tricky ones. You have to motivate people to change, you have to persuade them to try a new behavior, and they you have to support them in that behavior change.”

Historically there have been two major centers for social marketing: Washington, where most of the money comes from health agencies such as the CDC and the National Institutes of Mental Health and where the market leaders have historically been Ogilvy Public Relations and Porter Novelli; and California, which funds major anti-smoking and AIDS educations programs, and where firms such as Hill & Knowlton and Rogers & Associates have built major social marketing practices.

But money from the tobacco settlement is in the process of making social marketing a more national phenomenon. Porter Novelli has developed an award-winning anti-smoking program for the state of Florida, while firms such as Golin/Harris—which last week won Georgia’s anti-smoking initiative—and The MWW Group have benefited from tobacco money in other states.

“Tobacco is a big issue,” says Schwartz. “That’s going to spur a resurgence of social marketing around the county.”

The downside of social marketing programs, from an agency point of view, is that often the margins are razor thin, and all government spending comes in for close—and sometimes partisan—scrutiny, as Ogilvy & Mather learned last year when the ONDCP held back one-third of its fee amid charges of fraudulent billing practices.

“All government programs are different,” says Boudreau. “The fee structures are different and the deliverables are different. Obviously, we only want to take on those that make sense. But there are other factors. Our work for ONDCP has allowed us to try new approaches, particularly on the Internet, and to develop new skill sets. And our people love working on accounts where they feel they are making a real difference.”