12 rounds with a heavyweight: Chris Smith

The Advertising Standards Authority chairman talks to James Swift about the organisation's profile and the government's role in the creative industries.

Lord Smith of Finsbury, the chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority, is a fan of ads. That may seem like a trite observation, but a job that bestows the power to ban commercials would appeal to someone who has nothing but contempt for the industry as much as it would to an ardent supporter. So it’s worth pointing out where Smith is coming from.

Campaign met Smith, who was Tony Blair’s culture secretary between 1997 and 2001, in the ASA’s glass-panelled office in London’s Holborn. The walls of Smith’s office are adorned with posters. There’s no particular theme among the wall art, except for a couple of propaganda messages from the Spanish Civil War. Smith says he’s fascinated by a conflict that compelled people to travel from all over the world to join.

Smith must feel a little battle-weary himself. His role as the chairman of the Environment Agency put him in the firing line from politicians – most notably Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government Secretary – in the wake of the Somerset floods earlier this year.

Little wonder he speaks so joyfully about the ASA job.

"Asbof [the Advertising Standards Board of Finance] has just asked me to continue [as the ASA chairman] for another three-and-a-half or four years, and I said yes because I love the job," Smith says.

"It’s completely fascinating. All human life is there to see and it’s something I really enjoy doing."

Smith’s tenure as the Environment Agency chairman ends in July and people are already speculating about his next move. Reports have linked him to chairmanships at the Independent Press Standards Organisation and the BBC.

About IPSO, Smith stands firm and repeats his belief that the chair of that body should be someone with no political affiliation. On the BBC, he is cannier, saying: "As far as I’m aware, there’s no vacancy, so the issue doesn’t arise."

It is the only ducking and weaving he attempts during the interview, and a glimpse of the politician in him.

Photo by Colin Stout

Have you succeeded in raising public awareness of the ASA?
I think that we’ve raised awareness a fair bit over the past five or six years. Partly because we ran our own advertising campaign in the run-up to the online remit extension, partly because we’ve dealt with a range of high-profile issues, most recently the Oscar Pistorius ad [by Paddy Power]. Also, there have been a lot of public and political concerns over the sexualisation of children, as well as issues around alcohol and e-cigarettes. As long as these are in the public domain, the ASA has to take evidence-based action and let the public know that, because the ASA is here, advertising will be responsible.

Do you think that the UK ad industry has lost its swagger?
I saw that Jonathan Mildenhall [the vice-president for advertising at Coca-Cola] recently said something along those lines. My answer is yes and no. There are still some really innovative and interesting ads that come along that don’t breach the rules and hit the target with a bit of brio. But there’s an awful lot of play-it-safe advertising too. Has it lost its swagger as a whole? No. Does it feel less of a creative cauldron than when Alan Parker and Fay Weldon were hitting the target? Possibly.

What is the worst ad campaign you’ve ever dealt with?
Probably a string of ads coming from Ryanair two or three years ago, because it was as if it was flagrantly out to breach the rules. Not only was it hiding the cost of what it was trying to sell but it also had very misleading special offers that turned out not to exist in anywhere near the right quantities. In one back-to-school ad, it dressed women in school uniforms, like it was deliberately cocking a snook at the system. Now it has grown up as a company. It used to be every month that we’d get a complaint about a Ryanair ad; now we’ve not had one for a year.

What do you think about the argument that, because of the length of time it takes to make a ruling, the ASA sometimes ends up providing free publicity to a campaign that has already run its course in paid-for media?
That’s an issue for a small number of companies. Going back to Ryanair, it’s exactly what it was doing. But it’s counterproductive. Even though companies may get a few hits of publicity where they get to say "we’re the bad boys", nonetheless the constant news reports about breaching the rules do affect their public standing as a company. I’m sure that’s why Ryanair decided to abide by the rules.

How effective has the ASA been at regulating online advertising since its remit was extended in 2011?
We were worried when we got the online remit extension. How could we mirror the sanctions we had for traditional media in the online world? But, with the help of Google, we’ve not just got the naming-and-shaming approach, we can remove paid search facilities. On the whole, it’s leading to quite good compliance.

One of the most-complained-about ads of all time in the UK was the KFC spot that showed people singing with their mouths full. Do you worry that people who complain about ads have skewed priorities?
There are moments when we get complaints about ads and you think: "These people have to get a life. The things some people complain about… still, it makes life interesting and enjoyable. Complaining about people eating with their mouths full was one example, and we rightly rejected the complaints on that one.

Is it worse for an ad to be offensive or misleading?
It shouldn’t be either, but misleading ads are far easier to reach a judgment about. Something is either misleading or it is not. Offensive ads are much more difficult because they rely more on subjective judgment. One of the things I love most about the ASA Council is that people are prepared to listen and change their minds. I came into this setting from the Labour Party. People don’t generally change their minds in politics. They just restate their opinions.

Do you think there is too much advertising at the moment?
No. Advertising is part of what makes the economy work and it provides information to consumers. Without ads, a lot of the economy would seize up. Now we’re in the digital age, we have more access to comparative products. If you want to buy a house, you wouldn’t just trek from estate agency to estate agency; you would go online and review a range of agencies. You have access to a lot more information: that’s advertising.

Do you think the Labour Party has been sending out the right message on advertising, such as Helen Goodman’s speech at the Advertising Association’s Lead event earlier this year?
I didn’t hear the [Goodman] speech, but I think she certainly gave an unfortunate impression of their approach to advertising. She has since said that she was misquoted and misunderstood. I want to take that at face value and I hope that we will be able to demonstrate to her as an industry that we have clear rules in place and implement them rigorously.

One of the things I love most about the ASA Council is that people are prepared to listen and change their minds. I came into this setting from the Labour Party. People don't generally change their minds in politics

Do you think the present government has done enough to support the creative industries, in particular advertising?
No. But I don’t think any government for the past ten years or so has done enough to champion the creative industries. When I first came into government in 1997 as the secretary of state for the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, one of the first things I put in place was a need to understand and champion the creative industries. I helped put creative industries on the political map. But, after that, it all went quiet for a while. In Ed Vaizey, the Government has a minister for creative industries who is genuinely keen and passionate about them. But have they done enough? No.

Did you ever work with Paul Flowers when he was at the ASA?
I didn’t. He was here long before I came. At least ten years before I got here. I never met the man.

How do you think the Crown Commercial Service compares with COI in procuring ad services?
My impression was that, when the government had its own ad procurement process and had its own team and experts dealing with things, it worked well and got good value for money. Whether that is the case now, I don’t know.