Close-Up: Should COI rethink digital approach?

Minister Liam Bryne has stepped in to join up COI's digital and regional media, Ian Darby reports.

COI is currently in a state of flux. Following the resignation of the chief executive, Alan Bishop, last October, it has still to appoint a replacement (though sources suggest that there is an "impressive" shortlist of candidates in place to fill the role).

At Cabinet Office level, Matt Tee, the new permanent secretary for government communication, oversees COI. However, last week the Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne waded into its affairs when he ordered a shake-up to provide greater focus on the use of digital and regional media.

Recently, Byrne and his team have been instrumental in shaping the Government's wider push for joined-up communications across departments. On an even broader level, last week's Digital Britain report from Lord Carter raises the level of debate on issues such as broadband for everyone.

Both these things will have significant implications for the way in which COI will be expected to operate in the future.

But hold on a minute. Doesn't COI already occupy the status of being one of the largest, and even most sophisticated, users of both digital and regional media?

Supporters agree. They say that it already runs between 80 and 100 integrated campaigns per year across a variety of media and has embraced emerging technology in a significant way. Campaigns such as the "Frank" anti-drugs activity make heavy use of digital media channels due to the nature of the target audience.

This is borne out by the statistics. In 2003, COI invested £3 million in online activity, in 2006 this had risen to £12 million and by last year its digital spend was £29 million. This is a sure sign that it already takes online activity seriously.

However, some critics say that it has to be careful in its use of new media channels because audiences for some campaigns are not heavy users of new technology and the Government has to be careful not to be perceived as intrusive.

Carol Fisher, a former chief executive of COI and now a consultant, says: "If Sainsbury's sends a message to a mobile offering you 5 per cent off your shopping then you think 'great', but if you receive a message from the Inland Revenue asking why you haven't paid your tax bill yet, then your instant reaction is 'where did they get my number from?'. There's an incredible concern over 'Big Brother' issues and messages turning up where people don't want them."

COI also has a sophisticated regional press and PR framework in place, with more than 100 staff based outside London. It will be interesting to see how this, and digital activity, join COI's activities as it drives an "agenda for integration" in its media use.

Last April, Douglas McArthur, the former chief executive of the Radio Advertising Bureau, completed a report that recommended more integration of media buying processes due to a more "complex communications environment".

However, critics suggest that despite the creation of a "channel integration management team" and the positive influence of COI's communications planning director, Mark Cross, the body has much work to do in implementing this agenda for integration. Indeed, McArthur is set to embark on a second period of consultancy.

When looking at its digital capabilities, it appears that COI is keeping up with, if not in front of, many clients. However, with more obstacles to cross in truly integrating its offering, Bryne's intervention may be welcome.

- Got a view? E-mail us at

CONSULTANT - Douglas McArthur, founder, Planning for Results

"COI is already a substantial user of digital media. It is ambitious and a leader in the innovative use of digital media, and because of this it has won many awards.

"I see COI as a very developed user of regional media. It's number one in radio and very well developed in terms of local press. But then this isn't a surprise because COI has a more diverse set of target audiences than any other advertisers.

"This, coupled with its agenda to lead the industry in channel integration, may well see Byrne getting his ambition."

FORMER COI HEAD - Carol Fisher, former chief executive, COI

"When Whitehall was first experimenting with the internet, the tendency was to put everything on the web, which made search and navigation by interested parties almost impossible. But now, there are some of the most highly experienced people there, advising clients on targeting different audiences. For some campaigns (for example, Army recruitment), the internet is the lead medium for collecting initial enquiries.

"The team at COI and its clients in Whitehall have, before most agency groups, understood the need for an integrated approach, as it maximises consistency, impact and value for money, so government work is often in the lead in this area."

MEDIA PLANNER - Stuart Sullivan-Martin, chief strategy officer, Mediaedge:cia

"It's interesting that Byrne is getting involved. My guess is that any government interest in linking departments and strategy together is welcome.

"COI has put integrated communications, especially digital, at the top of its agenda. It has made changes around understanding the infrastructure of communications with technology at the heart.

"COI has regional centres of excellence and in terms of PR and local government messaging is quite well placed."

AGENCY HEAD - Tim Duffy, UK group chairman and chief executive, M&C Saatchi

"COI is pretty advanced in its use of non-traditional media - witness its advertiser-funded programme, experiential and digital activity. It's not as if, in comparison to other organisations, it is behind the curve. I would say that it was slightly ahead if anything.

"Having said that, there is further that it can go. Lord Carter's stated aim for Britain to be in a leading position in Europe in terms of providing universal broadband access demonstrates this. That said, COI has to continue to employ intelligently a good mix of digital and traditional media in order to get the balance right because many people are still digitally deprived."