Close-Up: Live Issue - BACC revamp by Ofcom raises more questions than answers

At a time of huge upheaval in TV, the BACC restructure may be vital.

The decision by those in charge of the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre to drag the watchdog into a new era will surprise nobody.

The same, though, can't be said of the announcement of the impending departure of its director, Uisdean Maclean, and one of his most senior lieutenants, Tony Kingsbury.

On the face of it, the timing seems bizarre. Not only does it leave the BACC leaderless, albeit temporarily, but the changes are being implemented in advance of Ofcom's expected announcement of the transfer of all advertising regulation to a new independent body.

What's more, Ofcom has what many onlookers believe are more important things to worry about at present, not least how to deal with the culture secretary Tessa Jowell's call for action on the burning issue of obesity.

"It's all most peculiar," a senior ad industry source remarks. "Why now?"

There appear to be several reasons leading up to the BACC's appointment of a new director with a brief to push through the technological change that will enable the organisation to carry out the pre-vetting of TV commercials faster and more efficiently.

One factor is the massive increase in its workload. The BACC is responsible for clearing about 90 per cent of all TV advertising. Only a few cable and satellite broadcasters - mostly ethnic, non-UK and shopping channels - are responsible for clearing their own.

The proliferation of channels and higher numbers of imported ads means that BACC managers are now having to pass judgment on almost 40,000 scripts a year - a threefold increase on a decade ago.

The workload issue has been compounded by what has been a long-standing problem of under-funding and under-resourcing of the BACC, which is bankrolled by broadcasters as part of their statutory obligations to run responsible advertising.

Even five years ago, Rupert Howell, in his inaugural address as the IPA president, was voicing concern that the BACC was being swamped with multiple-choice scripts to which agencies were demanding ever faster responses.

Today, those within the ad community who have to deal with the BACC still despair at what they see as its hidebound systems. "It's only just getting its mind around e-mail and its website is dreadful and far from user-friendly," one says.

"There are no proper processes and a dispute over a script can drag on for months."

The vexed issue of alcohol advertising is also seen as helping to drive change at the BACC. Some drinks manufacturers are known to be feeling aggrieved that their efforts to run responsible advertising have been undermined by alcohol commercials which may not break the letter of the rules, but certainly flout the spirit of them.

McCann Erickson's film for Bacardi featuring Vinnie Jones is cited as a particularly crass example. It has led some to question whether Maclean was exercising enough control over his team to prevent such inconsistencies.

Maclean did not return phone calls.

Other cynical observers, though, suggest that the BACC restructure is more about giving the impression of change at a time of huge upheaval within TV. The only crime of Maclean, the dour and self-effacing Scot who has run the BACC for 17 years, is the fact that he's part of the old guard, they say.

How much he has been responsible for creating the impression of the BACC as an over-bureaucratic and somewhat unworldly organisation is a moot point. Critics claim the devolved way in which the BACC operates works against consistent rulings and that whether or not you get a script approved can depend on which BACC executive you deal with. The fact that the BACC can reject a finished ad having already approved the script for it also rankles.

"Inconsistency is still the big criticism agencies have of the BACC," Duncan Bird, the Soul managing partner, says. "It doesn't seem to like creating a precedent."

Most agencies, however, feel the BACC does the best job it can in difficult circumstances, although all have their pet tales of the organisation's pernickety ways.

John O'Keeffe, the Bartle Bogle Hegarty executive creative director, recalls being asked to amend the script for a Boddingtons beer ad to avoid an innuendo which, he claims, nobody in the agency to this day has been able to spot.

And Greg Delaney, the chairman of Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, remembers a wrangle over a commercial describing Hellmanns as "the only mayonnaise". The line eventually had to be amended to say that "in a world of change, Hellmanns is the only mayonnaise".

Al Young, the creative chief at Banks Hoggins O'Shea/FCB, has just been firmly reminded by the BACC that the agency's new Waitrose script featuring a van driver must show him neither speeding nor drinking alcohol. Young, however, has no complaints. "The BACC is our reality check," he says. "It reminds us that, at the end of the day, we're just selling things."

Now, the industry waits for a new leader at the BACC. Some insiders believe finding somebody who understands not only how advertising works, but the regulation of it, will prove difficult.

"They'll need the foresight of a Hebrew prophet and the wisdom of Solomon," Philip Circus, a marketing law consultant and a member of the rule-making Committee of Advertising Practice, suggests. "This is a job for a consummate diplomat who won't mind leading the BACC through a period of considerable change."

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