CLOSE-UP: ADVERTISER OF THE WEEK/COI COMMUNICATIONS - COI enters 21st century as more nimble operator. The government agency is fast catching up with the media age

’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.

’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

non-executive director.



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

body.



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

world.’



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

predecessors.



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

roster agencies.



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

targets.’



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.’



KEY DATES

1946

The Central Office of Information is born out of the wartime Ministry of

Information

1994

Peter Buchanan is made director of advertising

1995

The COI loses its monopoly

1996

Tony Douglas becomes first outsider to be made chief executive of the

COI

1998

Labour Government drops plans to sell off the COI following a review

1999

Carol Fisher is appointed chief executive

2000

Name changed to COI Communications



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