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
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
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