Feature

Yahoo! Report: COI's creative civil servant

We lure Alan Bishop, the COI chief executive, into the Yahoo! Big Idea Chair.

He reveals why he chose advertising rather than Afghanistan, his first Yes Minister moment and how technology is going to make us feel closer to the Government.

Alan Bishop, a former chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, became the chief executive of COI Communications in January 2003. Effectively the Government's marketer-in-chief, reporting to the Cabinet Office, his immediate brief was to restore COI's status - before his arrival, relations between COI and some Government departments had become strained.

On starting out I'm a child of my times, I suppose. Born in the 50s, grew up in the 60s - and although I had the benefits of a traditional education, through which I went from grammar school to Oxford, I wanted to do one of those creative things that had given the 60s their great drive. In the early 70s, if you weren't going to drop out and go to Afghanistan with your guitar, the creative opportunities were limited. The music business wasn't formalised and the film industry was non-existent in Britain. Advertising seemed attractive.

On the lessons learned during an advertising career The thing about Saatchis was that it was always changing. There was a period when I was there when it doubled in size in two years. A lot of good management practices evolved during that time. When things are happening that quickly, you can't always do things in a top-down way. You have to give responsibility to young and inexperienced people.

On the challenge at COI When I arrived, the Department for Transport had been looking to go its own way and it was important to re-establish that what COI does can't be done in competition with other departments. It's true there was a need for COI to work more flexibly, but I never saw the challenge when I arrived in a simplistic way. I don't think you can ever say: "Here's the big problem - and when we've fixed it, then that's the job done." I think we have always to be looking at how we can change the way we work. We have to be at the leading edge of Government communications.

On the work Two campaigns in particular spring to mind. One was the "Preparing For Emergencies" campaign that was set in train before the 7 July London bombings. I felt there was a genuine need for people to be more alert. For happier reasons, I was also pleased with our work on the London 2012 Olympic bid. I have got a letter from Seb Coe, the chairman of the London 2012 Organising Committee, that I'm very proud of. Particularly when you remember that there was a little bit of sneering before the announcement that London had got it. You know - the Paris bid has the director Luc Besson, the New York bid has Steven Spielberg ... and London has COI.

On the types of agencies that work best with COI I suppose it's attractive to be seen as a sponsor of up-and-coming creative agencies. And it's true that newer, non-network agencies have produced good work for us. But it's equally true to say that supposedly boring, old network agencies have also done great work for us.

On the impact of digital media It provides just so much more in terms of new opportunities for getting across certain points. But we have to be careful to remember that there are those who don't have access to broadband internet. We can't argue - as the private sector may do - that it's not important to target parts of the population that are not as economically active as others.

On coping with general elections It can't be business as usual because in the run-up to an election, anything that can be construed as party political has to be suspended - so that clearly affects the pattern of activity. You have to be on the ball because you have to pull campaigns quickly, and it isn't easy these days with the proliferation of media channels.

On how disruptive a change in Government could be It shouldn't impact on what COI does - although we may be unconventional civil servants, civil servants are what we are. I don't think we would see much in the way of a broad change in approach. It's true that some people in Government may mistrust some of the marketing jargon and terminology involved, but I think there's a broad appreciation that to get your message across effectively, you have to use the right techniques.

On my ultimate "Yes Minister" moment The first time I heard myself say "yes minister" was an incredibly self-conscious moment. I thought: "Did I really just say that?" But you realise that that's just what everybody says. It's the polite way to address a minister. But as to the implication behind the question, I think that the notion - that senior civil servants are there to manage ministers - is incredibly old-fashioned. It's as old-fashioned as the idea that advertising account men are there just to bamboozle the client.

On a big idea in public service communications The big idea currently is transformational Government - using all the techno- logies at your disposal to make life easier for the citizen. We can easily envisage a situation, for instance, where most people will do most of their transactions with the Government online. That will make their lives easier, will make Government more efficient and will, in the long run, save money.

On a big idea for the future in any field My big idea is the theory that we'll perhaps learn to rely less on the whole notion of big ideas. In the advertising business, it became fashionable to believe that anybody could bring an idea to the party. It was great from the standpoint of inclusivity and team-building, but it has also led to the notion that the idea is all that matters. I hope that the focus will return once more to the people who know that an idea is just the start point and that great work is about the talented expression of that idea.

If you live on planet Earth, you will have heard of Russell Davies, Campaign columnist and blogger extraordinaire at russelldavies.com. He talked about this interview on his blog and we invited people to submit questions for Alan. Here's one of the best, posted by Damian:

Are UK consumers now increasingly unreceptive to hard- hitting campaigns? Actually, the evidence we've seen says exactly the opposite. When the message is unfocused, it tends to be lost in the execution. When there's a clear message, well dramatised, then people tend to be more receptive.

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