EDITORIAL: COI's future needs to be settled soon

Not even the most expert of Blair apologists could spin away the mess which the Government's advertising policy is in. Last week's news that the Department of Transport's attempt to break away from COI Communications is to be limited to a 12-month trial period is merely the latest manifestation of the turmoil now besetting Whitehall ad strategies.

About-turns, egomania, empire-building and a failure to listen to expert advice all now threaten not only to undermine the system but to provoke further uncertaintanties about the future of COI. Despite coming through its five-yearly review with a clean bill of health, COI remains the victim of Government indecisiveness. Four years ago, ministers removed the requirement on government departments to use COI for their ad requirements. No talk then of this being an "experiment". Only when the giant DoT decides to avail itself on an escape route from COI does it become so.

The problem is that ministers are attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable.

One the one hand, they're prepared to allow government departments autonomy when it comes to choosing their advertising and marketing partners. This is despite the warnings of people such as Derek Dear, who resigned as the chairman of the Government's Advisory Committee on Advertising in protest at what he thinks may be a waste of taxpayers' money by the DoT.

Whether or not he's right remains to be seen. But the DoT's case isn't enhanced by the splitting of its £20 million account between six existing roster agencies. And many people will take a lot of convincing that the DoT can better COI's media buying clout elsewhere.

On the other hand, the Government insists COI's future is secure. But how can that be when any of its Whitehall customers are allowed to do their own thing whenever they choose? It's a situation which presents ministers with a dilemma. Allow COI to retain its monopoly position and they risk it becoming complacent. Allow government departments to declare UDI and they risk robbing COI of its morale and sense of purpose.

Maybe there's a case for dismembering COI and devolving its activities to individual departments rather than letting it die a slow and painful death. But it would need to be a strong one - COI's experience in matching the right brief to the best agency would be hard to replace. COI's future needs settling - and quickly. The present situation is a fudge which benefits nobody.

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