Media: A Moment with Marquis

The Daily Telegraph informed its readers the other day that the new NHS computer system was now £14 billion over budget.

Just read that again, would you? And once more, please, because it is probably the most staggering fact you or I have heard since I learnt that weasel vomit makes a particularly fine blend of coffee.

How those of you in charge of a modest job bag or even quite a hefty media budget might think it possible to overspend anything - let alone on a computer system - by FOURTEEN BILLION POUNDS will probably never be clear.

Our Government, the one that if Tony Blair gets run over by a bus will be run by John Prescott, the one that jails a mere 14 per cent of apprehended knife-carriers and lets foreign murderers roam our streets, the one to which we pay every penny we earn from 1 January to 5 June in tax before we get a bean for ourselves, has commissioned a new computer system for the NHS that is as much over budget (and still not sorted) as - wait for it - almost the entire value of UK advertising!

Whatever you think about advertising, however much you may fret about its value, contribution to the sum of human happiness, effectiveness, wit, humour, desirability in an already materialist world, you cannot doubt that overall, approximately the same number of billions it has taken the NHS not to sort out its computer system has been rather better spent on what we do for a living. There is, after all, a decent body of evidence that advertising works and works for increased and better-informed consumer choice.

Forget the politics - this is nothing to do with left, right or centre - it is down to governmental competence, or rather the complete lack of it. If anyone in advertising - agency, client, media owner, trade body, call centre operative in Mumbai, direct mail envelope licker - were as profligate, reckless or arrogantly incapable as the people behind a £14 billion computer overspend, they would not see their next pay-check or even their office mates for a farewell drink at the local. They would - rightly - be toast.

Yet, we seem to shrug off jaw-dropping governmental ineptitude when we wouldn't tolerate a minute sliver of it from our colleagues.

If this bunch were an agency, they would be summarily fired and the business put up for pitch.

As it is, we still have one, two, three or four more years of them. Now, a large brandy please, barman.

- Simon Marquis is the chairman of the National Readership Survey and the former chairman of ZenithOptimedia.

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