’We are the jam in the sandwich. We offer added value to both
sides.’ This is how Carol Fisher, the chief executive of COI
Communications, describes the work of the Government publicity body of
which she has been boss for the past year and a half.
It’s a far cry from the language of Clement Attlee, who was the prime
minister at the time the Central Office of Information was set up (out
of the wartime Ministry of Information) on 1 April 1946. For him, the
COI was merely a vehicle through which ’the public shall be adequately
informed about the many matters in which government action directly
impinges on their daily lives’.
The more eagle-eyed reader will have spotted a subtle name change
between 1946 and 2000; last week the Central Office of Information
became COI Communications.
But Fisher would not argue with Attlee’s description: the new-look COI
Communications still has public information at its heart. It’s just that
Fisher is determined that COI should now be ’at the forefront of what’s
going on’ instead of limply reflecting the status quo.
The COI is now a genuine multi-media operation, creating more than 100
websites for clients last year. Fisher has set up a strategic division
to offer clients more objective, upstream consultancy; John Bartle,
approached by Fisher, was recently appointed the organisation’s first
And, for the first time,efforts are being made to pool the resources of
different parts of the Government where appropriate.
But perhaps Fisher’s biggest task has been the drive to instil a client
service focus to COI culture. The COI had been a monopoly for 49 years
until, in November 1995, the Government decreed that Whitehall
departments could run their own campaigns free of COI control - and the
COI had to drag itself out of the dark ages.
The changes began in 1996 when Tony Douglas was the first ’outsider’ to
be made chief executive. Douglas kicked off reviews and rationalisation,
but it is Fisher who is credited with injecting credibility into the
David Abraham, the managing director of St Luke’s, one of the
Government’s favoured agencies, says: ’Carol’s appointment was creative.
She has brought professionalism and focus to the job. She is a strong
standard-bearer for the industry. It is no coincidence that UK public
information ads are regarded as the most progressive and unusual in the
But let’s not get too carried away. As a semi-independent arm of the
government, COI still has plenty of bureaucracy to deal with. And
although creative standards have risen dramatically, some of the credit
must go to Tony Blair’s Labour Government, which is, Fisher says, more
receptive to innovative advertising ideas than its Tory
But Fisher is happy to take a share of the credit for the improved work,
of which she is immensely proud. Fisher says that the best COI work
’stands up to any agency in town’.
A reel of her favourite work includes campaigns by Ogilvy & Mather for
the minimum wage, St Luke’s for the Working Family Tax Credit, D’Arcy
for nursing recruitment, and Saatchi & Saatchi for army recruitment.
’We have to make sure the work is right so that it can change society,’
Fisher says of COI’s contribution. ’We tell the client what’s possible.
And we make sure that the client and the agency fully understand the
brief so that we get the right quality of response.’
In private, agencies will admit that COI Communications still has some
way to go before it approaches being a model client. It doesn’t pay
particularly well and demands a constant stream of pitches from its
One agency insider says: ’It can be difficult because - between COI and
the Government department - you have two clients to work for. It is hard
to juggle the two parallel relationships, especially when ministers have
a hidden agenda. And although some of the people are excellent, the
quality of staff at COI is patchy.’
While Fisher is fiercely defensive of her staff, she does admit: ’My
mission is to get the best people working at COI and to get the best
people in agencies working on our accounts. More than 60 per cent of our
staff have been hired from the communications sector. The civil servants
are in the backroom.’
Steven Goodwin, a board account director at O&M, sums up COI’s huge
appeal to agencies when he says: ’The work is intellectually stretching
and you get to influence tomorrow’s news.’
COI will always have the sort of limitations that could make even the
best commercial clients throw up their hands in despair. Fisher
explains: ’The difficulty is that there is almost never any precedent to
what we do. Take the launch of the euro: how do you measure success in
that area? Often we do lots of pre-research to educate us on
The constant threat of Whitehall reviews also meddles with the
self-confidence of COI. The first review, as early as 1948, concluded:
’The COI has not been easy to fit into the Whitehall constellation.’
Throughout most of the 90s, the COI operated under the constant threat
of a full privatisation. This uncertainty was made worse by a lengthy
build-up to the loss of its monopoly in 1995.
As a result of the 1995 ruling, accountability and efficiency aren’t
just watchwords for Fisher, they pervade every activity of every
employee every day at COI. ’This Government wants one plus one to equal
five, not two and a half,’ Fisher says.
Although COI does not have to make money, it must break even. In
Fisher’s first full year in the job, she achieved a profit of pounds
926,000 - well in excess of the pounds 100,000 target. COI is very busy:
work placed with it by government departments was 15 per cent higher
than in the previous year.
So the new name reflects a new era at COI. And the reason why the name
change is so minor is because to rename it fully would require an Act of
Parliament. And, as Fisher says: ’Parliament has more than enough work
as it is.’
The Central Office of Information is born out of the wartime Ministry of
Peter Buchanan is made director of advertising
The COI loses its monopoly
Tony Douglas becomes first outsider to be made chief executive of the
Labour Government drops plans to sell off the COI following a review
Carol Fisher is appointed chief executive
Name changed to COI Communications