Close-Up: The man anointed UK's ultimate ad rule-maker

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 12 November 2010 12:00AM

James Best's credentials make him a popular choice to lead the Committee of Advertising Practice, John Tylee learns.

The chairmanship of the Committee of Advertising Practice has always seemed a job James Best was destined to do. Indeed, the only obstacle to him leading the body responsible for setting Britain's advertising rules was the fear of the man hiring him that it might look like cronyism.

He and Sir Chris Powell, the chairman of the Advertising Standards Board of Finance, which is responsible for making the appointment, have had a working relationship stretching back to 1975 and spanning the evolution of Boase Massimi Pollitt into DDB London. It only ended three years ago when Best stepped down as DDB's chief people and strategic officer. "Chris was worried that it might look a bit fishy despite Best's obvious suitability," a source close to Asbof says.

So concerned was Powell that the process should be seen as above board that he took no part in the interview process. In the end, though, his worries have proved groundless. Best's extensive industry experience, his knowledge of how it works and his forensic mind well capable of absorbing the complexities of advertising regulation where the devil is often in the detail have clearly trumped any concerns about favouring an old friend.

And if some constituency organisations such as the Direct Marketing Association and the Institute of Sales Promotion might have preferred the well-rounded expertise of Andrew Marsden, the ex-Britvic marketing director, whose hat was also in the ring, the choice of Best is unlikely to raise many hackles.

"Not only has James undertaken lots of industry roles but he commands the kind of respect we need in a CAP chairman," ISBA's director of public affairs, Ian Twinn, says.

Tim Lefroy, the chief executive of the Advertising Association, where Best is a former chairman, is equally enthused. His verdict: "James is a spot-on choice."

Others praise the Oxford-educated Best's non-threatening mental agility honed at the feet of BMP's planning guru Stanley Pollitt more than three decades ago.

"He's fiercely intelligent but he never lays it on you," Hamish Pringle, the IPA director-general, says. "Yet although he wears his intelligence lightly, he's extraordinarily clear-minded. That's going to be useful at CAP."

So key has a credible self-regulation system become to the industry's future that it's hard to believe the CAP chairman was unsalaried until Andrew Brown's appointment in 1999. Previously, a senior client or agency executive was prevailed upon to add it to his day job. Now, the CAP chairmanship is seen as too big a responsibility to be done on an occasional basis.

Having guided CAP through the extension of the Advertising Standards Authority's remit into broadcast advertising and the ad code overhaul completed earlier this year, Brown, who steps down next March, is seen as a hard act to follow. "He's a great 'inside-the-room' negotiator," an industry source says.

Best, 56, comes to CAP enriched by his involvement in a diverse number of industry bodies. They range from the European Association of Communication Agencies, of which he's a former president, to membership of the ASA Council, a role he will now relinquish to avoid conflict of interest.

However, he'll retain the chairmanship of the advisory board of Credos, the think-tank set up by the AA as part of its Front Foot initiative that aims to sustain public trust in the ad industry. "The CAP job brings together a lot of what I've done before," he says.

Even discounting these qualifications, he still ticks some significant boxes. Not least of them is that he follows Brown (ex-JWT), Lefroy (ex-Young & Rubicam) and Powell in taking a major industry job as a sequel to an agency career.

"Advertisers sometimes favour an approach with which media owners may not be comfortable," one industry leader explains. "That's when ex-agency people become important because they can see the issue from both sides."

Although Best takes over at CAP safe in the knowledge that another major code revamp is several years into the future, insiders warn that the role will be no sinecure. "He is about to undertake a demanding job that's going to throw up all sorts of challenges," one forecasts.

As if overseeing the extension of the CAP code to embrace online ads, including social networks, search marketing and company websites, isn't daunting enough, the whole issue of how to police advertising effectively as it moves into ever-more technical areas of communication only adds to the conundrum. "James has to stay in touch with where technology is taking us," Lefroy says.

Whether or not regulation can be applied online (or, as some call it, "bandit country") is an open question, as is how the ASA will differentiate online advertising from editorial.

Best admits there will be initial difficulties because of the absence of precedents on which the ASA usually bases its decisions. Nevertheless, he expects common sense to prevail. "If something looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, then it probably is a duck," he suggests.

Meanwhile, he's under no illusions that the controversy over advertising's alleged role in fuelling binge-drinking, unhealthy eating and the sexualisation of children - as well as the heated debate about behavioural targeting - will ensure the issue of effective regulation remains to the fore. It also means he will be compelled to keep the CAP codes under constant scrutiny, tweaking them as necessary to reflect changing attitudes and new technologies, including the burgeoning video-on-demand market.

All this may involve Best in a tricky balancing act, maintaining good relationships with Ofcom and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport while safeguarding CAP's independence.

That includes ensuring that in aligning the statutory broadcast code and the self-regulatory non-broadcast one more closely, there is no "regulatory creep".

"It's always a fear," Best admits. "But there's no government appetite for more statutory controls - and no public outcry for them."

And as if all that isn't enough, he must address the ongoing problem of widespread ignorance about the rules that online has exacerbated. Twinn claims the issue goes beyond the fact that ignorance of CAP is still widespread within the industry. "A lot of advertisers still don't even know there's a self-regulatory system," he adds. "Most, if not all of them, are online."

For his part, Best sees the CAP job as a further stimulating progression of his career from poaching to game-keeping: "It's all about what advertising does for people and how far it can go before they get fed up. I think that's fascinating."

BEST ON CAP CHALLENGE

Technology and the changes precipitated by it "In our case, that clearly involves the extension of the ASA's remit to cover online activity."

Legal issues "With the amount of consumer protection regulation coming out of Brussels, it's up to us to make sure that what we do is in harmony with it."

Social changes "For consumers to have confidence in advertising and its regulation, the industry has to show good behaviour and standards. We have to recognise that issues such as TV advertising of pregnancy services and the airbrushing of ads are big issues for a lot of people."

Political expectations "At a time when the Government is cutting back, it is looking to industries like us to fill the gaps. Politicians need to be assured that our system of selfand statutory regulation is effective."

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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