Sixty Years of COI

What used to be the wartime Ministry of Information plans to become 'synonymous' with communication in the internet age. John Tylee takes a look at how the Central Office of Information is responding to the threat of being sidestepped by other government departments.

A marathon screening of all the Central Office of Information's ads and infomercials, end to end, would form an absorbing retrospective of Britain from the the post-war period to the present.

As the UK tried to recover from the war and meet its international obligations in 1946, COI spent £323,500 on armed forces recruitment ads. Sixty years on, a COI poster featuring pools of vomit warns young consumers that excessive drinking can result in a fine.

Slogans from COI campaigns have even entered the vernacular: "Coughs and sneezes spread diseases", from 1949, and "You know it makes sense", from 1968, retain a familiarity that belies their age. And not a lot of people know that COI is Britain's largest producer of toy hedgehogs.

Alan Bishop, COI's chief executive, mentions this fact not to trivialise the organisation's work (the hedgehogs are part of its child road safety initiative) but to underline the breadth of it. Indeed, COI's whole future is bound up with how well it evolves into a multi-faceted and flexible communications specialist.

Along the way, the organisation has not only accumulated a reel crammed with award-winning work and been a trendsetter in media centralisation, but has not been afraid to recruit iconoclastic young creative agencies to its roster.

That COI has remained so light on its feet despite its age is all the more remarkable considering how much stamina it has to expend on justifying itself to its paymasters. If it is not being subjected to its quaintly termed "quinquennial" (five-yearly) review, there are always enough MPs around wanting to kick its tyres. "It seems to me that COI is one of those terribly good ideas the government has always managed to muck up," a Whitehall mandarin once confided to a group of senior admen.

Undoubtedly, COI's reputation for lumbering bureaucracy, rooted in the organisation's wartime incarnation as the Ministry of Information, has been hard to shake off.

Some see evidence of it in the protracted pitch for the Department of Health's £25 million integrated anti-smoking account. More than three months after the presentations, no decision has been forthcoming.

"This is a situation where COI should be taking its client to task, telling it to run its pitch more efficiently," a competing agency source says.

Bishop will not be drawn on the delay but, as the former international chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, understands agencies' frustration. "All I can say is there have been no other such examples in the past three years - and we've run hundreds of pitches in that time," he says.

Despite such hiccups, few dispute COI's outward-looking approach is a great improvement on a decade ago, when many viewed it as a "semi-retirement home" for civil servants seeking an undemanding last post.

COI roster agencies indulged their client because they could ill afford not to. The organisation oversaw big budgets and paid the full 15 per cent commission. "COI was mean-spirited and flexed its muscles at every opportunity," a former agency chief recalls. Whether or not the "meanness" was more a case of COI maintaining its consistent reputation for careful handling of taxpayers' money and scrupulous behaviour is a moot point.

The organisation has long been renowned for ensuring that all its dealings are above board and impartial. In the early 80s, it dumped an agency from its roster after learning that an external studio working on COI business had bought a motorcycle for the son of the agency's chairman.

That impartiality goes back to COI's formation by Clement Attlee's 1945 Labour government. Elected on a promise of radical reform, the benefits of a national health service, social security and family allowances were all in need of objective communication.

Keeping messages free from politics is hard - almost any message involving health spending or education has political connotations.

For their part, agencies are less wary of interference by ministers than by their young and fired-up "special advisors". "These people get heavily involved," a COI agency chief says. "One even tried to influence the casting of a commercial."

Undoubtedly, some sailing has come dangerously close to the wind. A BBC Panorama programme three years ago presented evidence that government advertising was politically loaded to boost New Labour.

Bishop says: "Much legislation is politically motivated but once it becomes law we have to communicate it as well as we can." Peter Buchanan, COI's director of advertising, claims the problems often lie with agencies - rather than politicians - failing to understand boundary limits.

Occasional frictions notwithstanding, it's clear agencies will continue to make a good living out of Whitehall. Under Tony Blair's administration, COI annual adspend reached a record £203.2 million in 2004-05. Moreover, there's little to indicate that a David Cameron-led Tory government would be any less enthusiastic.

The paradox is that as COI has got better at what it does, there is a feeling that the need for some of its expertise may be diminishing.

"COI used to lead the blind across a changing communications landscape," a senior executive at a COI roster shop says. "But that's no longer the case."

It is not simply that the scales have dropped from the eyes of the Whitehall departments that use COI.

Their in-house marketing expertise has grown significantly in recent years.

How long, some ask, before those departments bypass COI, deal directly with creative agencies and reduce COI's role to centralised media negotiation?

This intensified questioning of COI and its role probably dates from the mid-90s, when Tony Douglas, the former DMB&B joint chairman, ushered in a more dynamic, open and agency-like culture.

His successor, Carol Fisher, the ex-Courage European marketing director, kept the momentum going, although her assertive approach did not suit everyone. "She was COI's Marmite," a former associate says. "You either loved her or you didn't."

Nevertheless, Fisher will be remembered for returning media planning to a central role. "COI forced media planning back into the pitch process and it was Fisher who pushed it through," a source with extensive COI experience says.

Meanwhile, targeting the young and traditionally hard-to-reach audiences has turned COI into a digital-media trailblazer. Although COI is the UK's fifth-largest TV advertiser, spending £70 million a year, TV represents a significantly lower percentage of total spend compared with other advertisers of similar size.

Under its director of digital media, Jamie Galloway, COI's spending in the sector has almost doubled in the past five years to £8.1 million.

This, in turn, has forced COI agencies to think more broadly.

There is some dissatisfaction, however, as to how digital work is assigned.

"You have to pitch for every project, no matter how small," a digital specialist complains. "Sometimes it just does not make financial sense."

Some COI creative agencies are also frustrated. "The roster is sliced up too finely," one agency manager argues. "We might come up with an overall campaign idea, but we can't take it anywhere other than above the line, although we're capable of doing so." Buchanan suggests agencies are over-claiming. "They may be excellent on strategic and creative ideas, but when it comes to doing a direct mailer we often find their pack designs aren't very good and that they don't understand what the constraints of direct mail are," he says.

But the biggest debate is whether Whitehall departments could or should cut out the middleman and have a relationship with their creative agency just like any other client.

The Department of Transport has already tried it, the Home Office has shown some ambivalence towards COI and the Department of Health has reportedly made a film directly with a roster agency.

As the marketing and communications director of the Inland Revenue, Ian Schoolar insisted on a direct route to its creative agencies, M&C Saatchi and Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy. "It makes sense for small departments to use COI," he says. "But we felt we had the level of expertise to brief agencies personally."

What's more, at least one senior executive of a COI roster agency admits to having been called directly by a department and asked to give a view on COI's performance. That is not to say COI is facing mass defections.

For one thing, marketing expertise within departments depends on individuals - and individuals move on. For another, such fragmentation works against Labour's much trumpeted philosophy of "joined-up government". Gordon Brown's budget also resulted in cost-cutting across Whitehall. Departments may have no choice but to remain with COI.

Bishop, who was not happy with COI's damaging public spat with the Department of Transport, is prepared to concede territory if it means COI's future role can be defined more clearly. "We're certainly not going to argue with departments about day-to-day agency relationships," he says. "As people understand how things have changed, there will be less focus on it."

What will not change is COI's role as a bridge between Whitehall and adland. Its agency assessment system maintains close relationships with the intermediaries and co-ordinates 12 to 16 major pitches a year. And it has always been good at uniting disparate parties, be they Whitehall departments or agencies, in a common communications cause.

Also, it can be expected to leverage its expertise in producing the kind of consumer research not available to Whitehall elsewhere. Its recent study highlighting the financial plight of many older people is a good example. "It's not the kind of research that is going to interest a commercial company," Bishop explains.

However, COI claims its work in marcoms has to be kept in perspective.

Of its 650 staff, only 45 are involved in advertising. The New Year's Eve firework display on the Thames, organisation of the official inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings and managing pre-publication security for the report on the death of Victoria Climbie are just a few of the activities that have fallen within its remit.

Bishop aims to make COI synonymous with communication in its broadest sense and his goal has been brought nearer by the two newest arrivals under his wing.

One is the Government News Network, the regional arm of government communications, which has been returned to the COI fold. GNN gives COI ten regional offices and allows the organisation to fulfil the recommendation of the Phillis Inquiry that it should take more of its messages local.

The other is Directgov, the internet "one-stop shop" for all official services in which government departments have a stake. "Directgov will turn the COI into a very different organisation," Bishop predicts. "It takes us a huge step further towards complete interaction with the public."

Attlee - who wanted COI to ensure that Britons were "adequately informed about the many matters in which government action directly impinges on their daily lives" - would surely approve.

COI TIMELINE

1946: Central Office of Information born out of wartime Ministry of Information with an initial budget of £4 million.

1947: Early campaigns appealing for blood donors and to promote diphtheria immunisation.

1954: Budget slashed to £1.6 million as part of a cost-cutting drive.

1964: "Don't ask a man to drink and drive" road safety campaign urges women to stop their partners driving under the influence.

1970: Green Cross Code Man is born.

1984: The Government switches from direct funding of COI and devolves budgets to individual departments. COI begins charging for services in order to recover its costs.

1989: Mike Devereau named chief executive. Spend reaches £86.2 million.

1992: COI chief now reports to Cabinet Office.

1993: Budget reduced from £83.1 million to £47 million.

1994: Peter Buchanan becomes director of advertising.

1995: Government departments free to run their own campaigns, without COI.

1996: Tony Douglas becomes first person from private sector to head COI.

1998: Government lifts threat of COI privatisation. Douglas leaves.

1999: Carol Fisher takes charge. Budget back up to £105.5 million.

2001: Becomes UK's largest advertising spender. Department of Transport breaks away from COI control.

2002: Director of digital media appointed. Passes five-year review. Fisher resigns and Derek Dear quits as chairman of the Government's Advisory Committee on Advertising in protest at DoT bypassing COI.

2003: Alan Bishop made chief executive.

2004: Phillis Inquiry findings boost COI. Spend reaches £189.5 million.

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