LIVE ISSUE/GOVERNMENT ADVERTISING: Politicians prove hard taskmasters to ad agencies - But not all the Govt roster shops have a bumpy ride. Andrew Grice investigates

In one episode of Yes, Minister, the politician, Jim Hacker, responded to a crisis by announcing that he knew exactly what to do - he’d run an ad campaign. It is a scene many agencies will recognise as they weigh up the criticism by Whitehall publicity staff about the way government campaigns are run (Campaign, last week).

In one episode of Yes, Minister, the politician, Jim Hacker,

responded to a crisis by announcing that he knew exactly what to do -

he’d run an ad campaign. It is a scene many agencies will recognise as

they weigh up the criticism by Whitehall publicity staff about the way

government campaigns are run (Campaign, last week).



However, the short-term nature of politics, rather than poor

organisation and planning, seems to be the root cause of the waste and

inefficiency identified during a review by Mike Granatt, the head of the

Government Information and Communication Service.



Soon after helping Labour win the 1997 general election, BMP DDB found

that politicians have short memories. Harriet Harman, the then Social

Security Secretary, disliked one BMP ad and promptly ordered that all

future campaigns should be put to a pitch, thus ending BMP’s long reign

as the department’s lead agency. ’It’s no wonder there’s a lack of

co-ordination when ministers behave like that - it’s a recipe for

uncertainty,’ one official admits.



Another problem that afflicts agencies working on government campaigns

is that they are often put together at very short notice. In some cases

- when there is a public health risk, for example - this is

unavoidable.



In others, the the politicians are responsible.



’A lot of the difficulties are caused by ministers,’ one senior civil

servant says. ’They demand action and now. They don’t understand that

you can’t easily turn round a TV campaign and hire a top director in a

few weeks. It also means your negotiating power in the market is

zilch.’



The chaotic picture painted by Granatt’s report will be familiar to

agencies.



Some have long grumbled that such work can be more trouble than it’s

worth - not that it stops them coming back for more. Shops have also

found it difficult to please several masters: the ministers, the policy

and publicity staff in the department running the campaign and the

Central Office of Information, the government’s advertising body. ’There

are too many cogs in the wheel,’ a source at one roster agency says.

’The staff we deal with seem out of touch and pedantic. The COI and the

government departments seem to have completely different agendas. I felt

that the policy-makers wanted to take control but they did not

understand the creative process enough to do so.’



Such tension between policy and campaign staff emerged as a key issue in

Granatt’s survey. Publicity staff complained they were often brought in

at the very last minute - a grievance shared by the COI. ’The COI has

got to be at the top table,’ a former senior manager there explains,

’but some people in Whitehall want to freeze it out.’



An agency chairman agrees: ’The COI should be involved. But it doesn’t

want to offend departments because they are no longer obliged to use it

for their publicity. The COI has less clout and is left biting its

nails.’



Granatt found that departments differ markedly and this conclusion is

backed up by ad agencies. Departments with small ad budgets sometimes

rely on press officers to handle the paid publicity. But the agencies

working on the Labour Government’s big accounts seem happy enough.



’My experience has been very different from the criticisms in the

report,’ says Paul Bainsfair, chief executive at TBWA GGT Simons Palmer,

which handles the Euro preparation campaign. ’We dealt with the Treasury

and the whole thing was conducted in co-operation with the COI. The

whole process was very well organised.’



Andy Palmer, the account director in charge of the New Deal business at

St Luke’s, says: ’These are problems we just haven’t experienced. Maybe

that’s because New Deal is a flagship campaign. The whole process was

very straightforward and the channels of communication were very

open.’



Carol Fisher, the COI’s chief executive, confesses to ’some sympathy’

with agencies who find the Government a difficult client but believes

they often have the wrong approach. ’Agencies find this a problem

because they try to second guess what the client wants instead of

finding the best solution.’



She is convinced that the COI can help by shedding its image as a

procurement agency and becoming a strategic consultancy. When she meets

her clients in Whitehall, Fisher urges them to involve the COI at an

earlier stage.



She stresses the COI’s ability to help them reach target audiences and

to police the rules banning party political propaganda which, she

claims, ’agencies do not understand’.



Despite the decision to allow departments to shop around, Fisher says

the COI is now winning a higher share of the business than in recent

years and insists there is ’no sign’ of any department going it alone on

advertising.



Although Granatt’s report will provoke a drive to ensure better

co-ordination and planning by departments, some of the problems will

remain. ’It is totally different from the private sector, where you look

five or ten years ahead,’ one agency chief says. ’You just can’t do that

in politics.’



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