Close-up: Confident Parker settles into the ASA hot seat

After a tough start, has the new chief executive got what it takes to survive as the head of the ad watchdog?

It's been a baptism of fire for Guy Parker. Barely had the Advertising Standards Authority's new chief executive been introduced to the industry than he was fending off charges from the Commons Health Select Committee that alcohol ad rules are too lax and encourage under-age drinking.

Meanwhile, further flak awaits with a plan to amend Britain's advertising codes - currently under review - to allow condom manufacturers to advertise on TV and radio whatever the time of day and to open up the airwaves to abortion clinics.

The British Medical Association is up in arms, a Commons motion has condemned the ideas and the anti-abortion group LIFE delivered a petition to the ASA calling for a rethink. Parker played it by the book and passed it straight to the rule-making Committee of Advertising Practice. As an ASA executive of 17 years' standing, he knows well enough where the demarcation line is. CAP makes the rules; the ASA polices them.

For some, his strict adherence to protocol will reinforce the perception that the ASA has opted for safety first when selecting Parker - Christopher Graham's deputy and now his successor - after Graham's appointment as the Government's information commissioner.

Undoubtedly, it would have been less than ideal to bring in an outsider in the middle of the code review and during a period when the banking crisis and the scandal over MPs' expenses has put self-regulation under scrutiny as never before.

As a result, the ASA must perpetually justify its existence. "We have no statutory right to exist," Parker says. "We have to make the case for ourselves every day."

What's more, he's aware of the thorny issues that await as the ASA's remit extends and has been eager not to be seen as somebody who will sustain the status quo. Those who know Parker, however, say that merely to call him a "safe pair of hands" is to damn him with faint praise.

He certainly has a modest demeanour. One associate says he never even knew about Parker's promotion to deputy chief executive - Parker just never thought to tell him.

But beneath the self-effacement lies what people around the Wellington College-educated radiologist's son see as an outstanding ability to grasp complex issues and to address them decisively. "He's gritty and will fight his corner when he has to," Winston Fletcher, the chairman of the Advertising Standards Board of Finance, declares.

Thankfully, a high intellect is accompanied by a boyish charm - "You'd have try very hard not to like him," a colleague says - and boundless self-confidence.

"He's bright and articulate but also a very likeable person who keeps both feet on the ground," Philip Circus, CAP's longest-serving member, says.

Andrew Marsden, the chairman of the ad code review, describes Parker as "very thorough and diligent". Oliver Gray, the director-general of the Brussels-based European Advertising Standards Alliance, which co-ordinates self-regulation across the continent, adds: "He thinks fast. And he really does his homework."

Parker might have made his career in advertising. He did a course at West Herts College followed by work experience at Collett Dickenson Pearce (where he created a poster for Hamlet cigars) and at Charles Barker. It was there, in 1992, that he heard about a vacancy for an investigations executive at the ASA.

He's been there ever since, having rejected all headhunters' attempts to lure him away. And there's little doubt he could have improved on his new annual salary of around £120,000 - quite modest for leading the body that polices all advertising running in the UK, whether broadcast, print or online - had he defected to another major industry regulator.

"I love it because there's such a variety to our work and we're very much at the sharp end of things," he says. Just as well, perhaps, given the kind of challenges the organisation will need to confront in the coming years. Issues such as the advertising of alcohol, snack food, gaming and the commercialisation of children will need constant vigilance.

So, also, will the need to ensure the continued integrity of the statutory regulation governing TV advertising and the self-regulatory codes for non-broadcast media which were brought together by Ofcom under the ASA umbrella five years ago.

Then there's the question of reconciling the watchdog's expanding remit with the fall in the amount of advertising. This is having a huge impact on the finances of ASBOF, which funds the ASA via a levy on all non-broadcast advertising.

The issue will need to be addressed quickly because it's no longer a question of if the ASA's remit is extended but when. The Office of Fair Trading is keen for it to happen and the EASA wants 80 per cent of its regulator members to have either expanded their remits, or be in the process of doing so, by April next year.

Many will be looking to the UK, whose system is seen as the gold standard, for a lead. Giving it will not be easy, Parker admits. "It's relatively easy for a small European regulator to do this," he explains. "Because we're large we can expect to receive thousands more complaints."

A more far-reaching ASA can expect to be kept busy. Video-on-demand may be a small sector now and under the control of established players. That's unlikely to be the case in five years' time.

Meanwhile, there's the matter of how best to regulate teleshopping, online promotions and, in particular, marketing information on corporate websites.

Parker believes the latter must be subject to ASA policing, and soon. "We get thousands of complaints about company websites," he says. "The public sees this as advertising. They don't make the same fine distinction that the industry makes."

How is all this to be paid for? The only answer is to extend the ASBOF levy to those who haven't coughed up before. "We have some ideas about how this could be done," Parker declares.

Meanwhile, he can expect further pressure from the IPA, which is concerned that the ASA makes so much of the number of complaints it receives - rather than the high levels of compliance - that the industry is made to look like a bunch of hucksters.

"If we didn't give details of the numbers of complaints we receive we'd be out of business," Parker says. "It's what people want to know. If we only concentrated on the industry's positives we wouldn't be doing it any favours."

Nor, it seems, does he have any plans to backtrack after the IPA's less-than-ecstatic reaction to the ASA's abandoning of its familiar "red tick" symbol in favour of a more contemporary logo and of not emphasising its commitment to ensure ads remain "legal, decent, honest and truthful" in favour of a new slogan: "Keeping advertising standards high."

"Research has shown us that the new logo is better recognised than the old one while the new slogan is a powerful line that sums up what we're about," he says. "Mind you," he adds, "if we're getting it in the neck from all sides it probably means we're getting it right."

- Leader, p18

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 39
Family: Wife Millie, children Freddy, Joe and Scarlett
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