THE CLIENT CATALYSTS - CAROL FISHER: As chief executive of COI Communications, Fisher inhabits the unique position of both client and agency

Imagine running a company whose bosses send in a hit squad to

review every aspect of your work for the past five years, get outside

consultants to run the rule over you, quiz your clients about whether

you provide value for money - and have the power to close you down and

throw you out of work if you haven't performed.

It's an occupational hazard for Carol Fisher, but hers is no ordinary

company. Its COI Communications, and her boss is the Government.

As the COI's chief executive, Fisher has always been sanguine about the

so-called quinquennial review, which has just been completed. Not just

because there is no realistic prospect of the COI being axed or

privatised (Michael Heseltine was the last politician to contemplate

that - and only because he never really understood what the Government's

advertising arm was about, she claims). It has more to do with the quiet

revolution Fisher has been leading at the COI, a vehicle that has

endured more than its fair share of ministers continually kicking its

tyres to satisfy themselves of its roadworthiness.

Today, the COI is at ease with itself and displays a bustling

self-confidence that belies its unfashionable home in a North Lambeth

architectural aberration reminiscent of a 50s polytechnic.

Not only is the COI thinking and acting like the heavyweight advertiser

its £195 million annual media spend allows it to be, but it is

clearly in a comfortable relationship with a government frequently

over-preoccupied with "spin", but ever eager to communicate.

Fisher's glass-sided and spacious fourth-floor office personifies the

new and improved COI. No civil service utilitarianism here, only

terracotta-coloured sofas and suffused lighting. Keep it to yourself,

but it looks more like the den of an agency chairman.

Indeed, rumours have been rife that Fisher, about to enter her third

year in the COI hotseat, might be tempted into running an agency. The

speculation isn't dampened when she says: "I think I could do almost

anything after this job." But she offers no further clues. "We all get

sounded out, and there are always rumours - it was probably just my


Doubtless, many agencies would love her at the helm. She is welcoming

and combines an easy-going manner with a refreshing ability to cut

through the crap. It's doubtful Fisher would use such intemperate

language to describe herself, but bosses of COI roster agencies deemed

to have been under-performing are never left in any doubt as to where

she stands and what she expects of them.

Fisher exudes confidence in herself and her staff. And with good


Regular feedbacks from government departments choosing to use the COI's

service - there's no compulsion - have reached new heights. The only

cloud on the horizon is the Department for Transport, Local Government

and the Regions, which has decided to bypass the COI and handle its own

marketing communications programme. The fear is that others will follow

suit, and Fisher is well aware that the COI can't be complacent. It must

perpetually prove its indispensability.

The COI's ability to hold the line is strengthened by what it has done

to improve its act. No longer is it seen as a rest home for has-beens en

route to a pension. Seventy per cent of its 400 staff now come from the

commercial world, and Fisher finds herself in the unaccustomed position

of having unsolicited CVs drop on her desk.

Agencies that once moaned about lightweight COI personnel rarely do so

now. In fact, the new-business director of one top shop remarks on the

numbers of "bright, sparky people" about the place. John Bartle, now a

non-executive director of the COI, believes the calibre of its staff

matches anything he had at Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

"Don't anybody think they can join us for a quiet life," Fisher


It is also a measure of the distance the COI has travelled that Fisher

has been prepared to publicly castigate ITV for its arrogance -

something no senior civil servant would have dared do a few years ago -

and that she followed Sir Martin Sorrell and Maurice Saatchi as a winner

of the Publicity Club of London award for the year's most significant

contribution to advertising and marketing.

Small wonder that Fisher can take a Cabinet Office review in her


Not only does she acknowledge a compelling need for it - "The money we

spend is yours and mine" - but suggests businesses of all kinds would

benefit from a similar cathartic experience every few years.

Would advertising be a suitable case for such treatment? There is not

much doubt where Fisher stands in this one. She doesn't disguise her

contempt for an agency that axes a dozen jobs while a senior executive

takes delivery of a £103,000 Ferrari. Any business guilty of such

insensitive excess has forfeited any right to sympathy when times get

tough, she declares.

Fisher is a well-placed witness of adland's strengths and shortcomings.

Coming from a classic marketing background - Reckitt & Colman, Rank

Hovis McDougall, Grand Metropolitan, Holsten and CLT UK Radio Sales -

she is from the civil service, but not of it.

Her salary - between £95,000 and £100,000 according to the

latest COI report and accounts - is on the high side by Whitehall

standards, and she has been careful not to be sucked into the

bureaucratic quicksand.

Fisher has never forgotten the three-hour Cabinet Office briefing

shortly after being appointed in December 1998 to continue the COI

restructuring set in place by her predecessor, the former DMB&B joint

chairman Tony Douglas. It might as well have been delivered in Sanskrit

for all the sense it made, she recalls. The experience is a constant

reminder to her never to lapse into the bureaucratic argot.

Of course, there will always be delicate balances for the COI to


Part client, part agency, it has to gently lead Whitehall careerists who

know next to nothing about advertising and will switch off what they

don't understand, while administering stiff doses of realism to agencies

that think they know it all.

It's a situation in which playing it by the book is vital. Fisher is

particularly keen to distance herself from the Transport for London

pitch fiasco when M&C Saatchi was awarded the congestion charge

assignment only to find the correct procedures hadn't been followed and

that the pitch would have to be put out to tender again.

"We were never consulted," Fisher says. "I think what happened was

caused by ignorance, rather than somebody deliberately trying to break

the rules. It's a shame for M&C Saatchi because it wasn't the agency's


Agencies have traditionally been ambivalent about the COI, welcoming the

creative licence COI briefs can bring, but disdainful that the demands

on them aren't matched by the pay cheques. Fisher only just stops short

of telling them to like it or lump it.

"People say we don't pay well and I'm entirely unapologetic about that

because we spend public money and I'd soon be in trouble if we were

thought too generous," she says. "But we do pay promptly and we never

grind agencies into the ground."

Sure the COI is demanding of agencies. Campaign lead-in times are short,

leaving little margin for error, so the work presented at pitch is what

usually runs. Also, if COI assignments aren't the most lucrative for

agencies, at least there's plenty of them. While most pitches offer no

prizes for coming second, a good performance by an agency in one COI

contest gives it a distinct advantage in the next.

"What's more, the COI provides a fantastic showcase," Fisher adds. "I

doubt there's a COI roster agency that does not have our work at the

start of its showreel or at the head of its credentials."

It is perfectly understandable that agencies want to show off their COI

work. Much inspiration and perspiration often goes into its


Moreover, the route is often tortuous. Partly because the COI must

always balance its demands for cut-through creative work with more

pragmatic considerations. Radical is fine as long as it doesn't provoke

the unwelcome attentions of the Advertising Standards Authority, the

Independent Television Commission or hostile questions from


An added complication is that agencies have none of the usual

navigational aids to guide them. As Fisher explains: "We are often

addressing very difficult and complicated problems. There's no desk

research available because a lot of our audiences aren't commercially

attractive. You won't find them in a TGI breakdown. The normal starting

points - what's the marketplace doing, what did we do last year, what

did the competitors do - aren't available to us."

Put simply, the usual advertising rules don't apply. For one thing there

are very few on-going campaigns. Up to 85 per cent are one-off tactical


For another, there's the huge diversity of audiences. While some

advertising initiatives set out to embrace the entire population, others

must zero in on sectors that are small and hard to communicate with -

intravenous drug users, impoverished pensioners and 15-year-old girls in

need of contraceptive advice.

The skill is in being able to talk to these people in a language they

understand, while wrapping the relevant messages in advertising which,

as Fisher points out, must be capable of holding its own alongside the

likes of Nike, McDonald's, Shell and Cadbury. "Our ads never open on

tropical beaches or show lots of white couples with 2.4 children. We

have to reflect the real world. Getting the casting right and making the

advertising inclusive is very important to us."

Fisher cares passionately about advertising's role in government and how

it can not only help better people's lives but, sometimes even save


Nevertheless, she is keen not to over-claim. If COI people aren't

sitting alongside government policymakers, it's because ad campaigns

account for a nanosecond of a minister's day. The COI may have a total

annual spend of £295 million, but it pales into insignificance

beside the NHS budget which will be £6 billion next year.

Agency people don't always realise this until they experience it

first-hand. Fisher cites the experience of Carol Reay who, as the chief

executive of Mellors Reay & Partners, was helped to put it all in

perspective while waiting outside Jack Straw's office to present a

campaign to him. Inside, the then home secretary was having to absorb

and react to the devastating conclusions the Stephen Lawrence inquiry

had reported that day.

The COI has clearly exposed Fisher to the real life from which she

believes agencies have lost touch. Glamorous lifestyles have bred

isolation and complacency, she claims. And how many agency people can

match their clients' eclectic backgrounds? "They all talk a good game in

claiming to offer communications solutions, but they don't," she


Fisher believes the fault lines in the agency structure were already

evident well before the economic downturn and that a shake-out is


An obsession with traditional advertising has caused many shops to

"paint themselves into a corner". Not only have they allowed others to

steal their business, but they've made no real efforts to replace


The fact is that agencies are reaping the bitter harvest of the years

when they gave too much away for nothing, she argues. And clients rarely

respect what they don't have to pay for.

Not the kind of thing adland expects to hear from a civil servant. And

certainly not one running an organisation once perceived as being a bit

of a supertanker; slow in its progress and hard to turn around.

A supertanker? More like a Mirage jet, Fisher proclaims with no hint of

irony and a clear implication that the slowboats are anchored in Soho

and Covent Garden rather than London SE1.


Lives: Thames Ditton

Car: B registered Mercedes 28 E. "I'd love an Audi convertible, but I

don't think the Cabinet Office would stump up for that."

Family: A "significant other", plus a brother and sister.

Relaxing: Travelling. "I've visited 43 countries." Weekend walking in

Wiltshire and Sussex.

Recent reading: An Accidental MP by Martin Bell. Music and Silence by

Rose Tremain.

Favourite TV: BBC Ten O'Clock News. "It's compulsory." Prime Suspect,

Judge John Deed. "Anything that mixes history and faraway places."

Favourite ad: Benson & Hedges' "swimming pool". "I loathe and detest

smoking, but it's a beautiful ad."

Dream job: Managing director of the upmarket travel company Abercrombie

& Kent.