The media industry may be right to adopt a neutral or even vaguely cynical view of its regulator, Ofcom. But attaining even this level of approval is something of an achievement given the size of the task facing the chief executive, Stephen Carter, when Ofcom officially launched in December 2003.
Carter, who announced last week his decision to step down from the post in the autumn, faced a barrage of negative publicity over Ofcom's swanky riverside offices and large pay packets for senior staff and a logistical nightmare in attempting to connect the stray wires of five regulatory bodies into one socket. The negativity was also translated in part to the media industry because, of course, its senior players would be funding a first-year rise in operating costs of 27 per cent at the new body.
Carter's leadership of Ofcom has generally been positive for the ad industry, not just because he is a former senior adman (although this undoubtedly gave him some insight and empathy) but also because philosophically he has favoured a "light touch" approach to regulation. Some may argue that this touch was overly light in overseeing the aftermath of the ITV merger and subsequently reducing its licence burden, while also loosening its public-service shackles. Yet, this ignores the introduction of Contract Rights Renewal, which has had far more impact on ITV than many predicted and, assuming Ofcom knew what it was doing, was a rather heavy price for ITV to pay for the merger. Ofcom's decision not to conduct a review of the TV trading system also potentially played against ITV.
In general, Ofcom's governance of advertising issues has been consistent and on issues such as junk-food advertising, Carter and his team have generally favoured self-regulation and batted off hysterical calls for advertising bans. Carter's own preference, a review of product placement rules may not yet have been delivered, but changes to sponsorship guidelines have been welcomed.
There are some big questions still facing Ofcom, particularly surrounding its future governance of ITV, but the Carter regime has set a good precedent for the next. Whoever takes over, and the hot money is on his deputy, Ed Richards, then we could do worse than wish for more of the same. As for Carter, while a return to the ad agency world is not on the cards, a big media industry chief executive role would seem one possible option, given the high profile he has enjoyed while running Ofcom.