Close-Up: Profile - Labour's rising star is getting behind adland

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 03 June 2005 02:57PM

James Purnell, new minister for media and tourism, could be good for the industry, our Parliamentary correspondent says.

In 1989, a bright Oxford PPE graduate called James Purnell joined the office of a rising 35-year-old New Labour star called Tony Blair as his researcher.

Now Purnell is following in his mentor's footsteps. He is a 35-year-old rising star appointed as the minister for media and tourism, with responsibility for advertising and other "creative industries".

The Department of Trade and Industry, traditionally the sponsor of the ad industry, is letting go and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, where Purnell is a junior minister, is tightening its grip.

Officially, the two Whitehall empires will share responsibility for advertising, but it is increasingly clear that the DCMS is a more natural home and will call the shots.

When Purnell was promoted from the Labour whips' office to his first departmental post in Blair's post-election reshuffle, he was a rare breed: a new minister who actually knew something about his brief. The mountain of paperwork in his red ministerial boxes was familiar to a man who developed the Government's media policy as a research fellow for the left-of-centre think-tank the Institute of Public Policy Research. Previously, he was the BBC's head of corporate planning under John Birt and was then responsible for broadcasting, culture, sport and technology in the Downing Street Policy Unit. He became the MP for Stalybridge and Hyde in 2001.

His experience in the media world should stand Purnell in good stead when he embarks on a round of meetings with the advertising industry. A session with Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO is already in his diary; Mother and others will follow shortly. Although advertising is only a small part of his overall brief, he is taking it seriously.

His former partner Gail Gallie worked at DMB&B and BMP DDB Needham, where she was the account manager on the Labour Party account at the 1997 election.

Purnell does not come to his post armed with a New Labour-style list of initiatives. Rather, he insists, he is in listening mode. "We want to support what is a very successful British industry," he says. "We have great advantages here. It would be a tragedy if we woke up in 20 or 30 years' time and said 'oh God, remember how we had a world-beating advertising industry?'

"We want to have a serious dialogue with the industry about what support and help it needs. We need to identify the areas where the industry thinks there is a clear role for government. Across the creative industries, the level of government involvement varies.

In films and the arts it is fairly deep. In advertising, there has been a much lighter touch.

"Advertising is a very successful British industry, so I don't get the impression we need to be changing that. But if there are selective things the industry thinks the Government needs to move on, then that is what we want to hear about."

That could involve, for example, removing barriers, cutting red tape and stemming the flow of regulations from the European Union. One hot potato that lands in Purnell's lap is the question of whether the Government should ban junk-food ads aimed at children.

The good news for the industry is that his impeccable New Labour credentials mean he shares the scepticism of his departmental boss, Tessa Jowell, about bans.

"We support people to act responsibly. With children, there are different issues to be thought through, but the balance is about working with the industry to improve information and remove any abuses," he says.

Calling for a "sensible balance", he hints that a tougher voluntary code will be enough to head off demands for legislation. "Otherwise, those who want a tougher approach will want to return to the issue," he says.

Purnell served on the creative industries taskforce set up by Chris Smith, Jowell's predecessor, in 1997 - a well-meant initiative that went out of fashion after it became synonymous with pop stars partying at Downing Street.

The new minister admits the parties might have been a mistake, but insists the thinking behind the task force was right. "It's a crucial sector of the economy, growing twice as fast as the rest," he says. " What I want to do is to return to the serious economic ideas behind the taskforce and really see how we can support the creative industries."

Purnell will be urging the ad world to help the rest of Britain as well as itself. "The creative industries are important sectors in themselves, but they also support other sectors - marketing and design are central to the competitiveness of lots of other areas."

The "joint sponsorship" of advertising by the DCMS and the DTI has raised eyebrows in the industry, whose representatives fear it could create confusion.

But they have welcomed Purnell's appointment. "Not only does he know the subject, but he obviously has the ear of the prime minister," one industry source says.

Purnell explains advertising is an issue that cuts across departments, saying that the DCMS and the DTI have shown they can work together. "The DCMS already had significant input into the ad industry through its role in broadcasting and advertising regulation. It is sensible to bring that together," he says.

Broadcasting will take up quite a lot of Purnell's time. A strong supporter of the licence fee, he will nonetheless have to defend the Government's decision to extend it for another ten years. A tricky issue for him will be how to deliver Labour's manifesto pledge to achieve the switchover to digital between 2008 and 2012.

His experience at the BBC should come in handy. Despite Birt's reputation at the corporation, Purnell says: "John was great to work for. I learnt a lot from him."

The two men still meet socially but their friendship could be tested, since Birt, now Blair's "blue sky" thinker at Number 10, has had two recent clashes with Jowell. He proposed a major post-election revamp of Whitehall departments that would have killed off the DCMS, but Blair declined to implement it. Jowell, meanwhile, saw off Birt's call for some of the licence fee revenue to be top-sliced for other public-service broadcasters.

As one of the first of the 2001 intake of Labour MPs to become a minister, Purnell may find jealous enemies among his colleagues. Some MPs believe his close personal links to Blair could make it harder for him to prosper under Gordon Brown, Blair's most likely successor. A more likely scenario is that Brown would judge people such as Purnell on merit, so he has every reason to live up to his star billing.

THE LOWDOWN

Age: 35

Lives: St Martin's Lane, just a few hundred yards from his base at the

Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and in the Stalybridge and Hyde

constituency

Family: Engaged

Favourite ad: Levi's "drugstore"

Describe yourself in three words: No comment thanks

Greatest extravagance: Too much coffee

Interests outside work: Cinema, football, theatre, reading, TV

Living person you most admire: My sister Katie

Alternative career: Broadcasting management

Last book read: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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