CLOSE-UP: Live Issue/Political Parties - Why are agencies jostling for Labour’s account? The lure of politics is often more of an incentive than money, Andrew Grice says

Why were some 50 agencies so keen to offer their services to a client who has made it clear that they would be paid much less than the going commercial rates?

Why were some 50 agencies so keen to offer their services to a

client who has made it clear that they would be paid much less than the

going commercial rates?

Because the client is the Labour Party and party political campaigns

have always been more about kudos than cash.

Saatchi & Saatchi, J. Walter Thompson, Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper and TBWA

GGT Simons Palmer, who have all been shortlisted by Labour (Campaign, 10

March), go into next week’s pitch with their eyes wide open. They know

that BMP DDB stood down as Labour’s agency because it had to subsidise

the party’s 1997 general election campaign to the tune of pounds 1

million and did not want to take a similar hit next time.

But for some agency bosses the lure of the Labour account is


’It’s been my lifelong dream,’ Tamara Ingram, the chief executive at

Saatchis, says. ’For me, it is all about personal commitment. I want

Labour to be the party of this century.’

She would head a team of equally committed Labour supporters if Saatchis

wins the account and is confident that the agency’s strong links with

the Tories - before the split with Maurice and Charles -will not count

against it.

Labour bosses are seeking a financial as well as a political commitment

and the four agencies seem happy to oblige.

’There would definitely be costs involved,’ Mark Robinson, JWT’s

marketing director, says. ’Labour has to have an agency that can afford

it. No agency will be in it to make money but it will not have to do it

for free. Labour, not the agency, will pay the full price of the poster


Robinson says JWT is excited by the prospect of working for Labour.

’People have different views about whether a party needs an agency that

supports it politically. We take the view that it does, which is

primarily why we’ve gone for it.’

Nor have the four agencies been deterred by a new pounds 20 million

limit on total campaign spending by each party in the 12 months before

polling day, which will result in a much smaller ad budget than the

pounds 7.6 million spent in 1997.

Of course, everyone loves a winner. Although the Government has suffered

a bout of the mid-term blues since the turn of the year, Labour’s 178-

strong majority means it would take a political earthquake to shift Tony

Blair from Downing Street.

Capturing the Labour prize would guarantee a high profile, especially

during the election. ’Being associated with a victory would more than

compensate for the financial side,’ one senior agency figure says.

However, most agency chiefs admit privately that the Labour account has

its downside too. General election campaigns require huge resources,

which can affect other clients, and working under great pressure for

political masters who are quick to blame the agency for an unsuccessful

ad can take its toll.

Nailing an agency’s colours to a party’s mast can also alienate other

clients. But Blair has wooed industry so assiduously that this is

unlikely to be a big problem for Labour’s new shop.

Indeed, the number of big agencies prepared to work for Labour is a

testament to the party’s new-found respectability. It has reversed roles

with the Conservatives since the early 80s when most agencies would not

have touched Labour with a barge pole.

On the face of it, the Labour account could boost an agency’s prospects

of landing government business.

It would guarantee access to the New Labour hierarchy - the election

campaign will be run by Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. However,

government pitches are supervised by civil servants and the Central

Office of Information is scrupulous about getting the best agency for

the job regardless of political affiliations.

Some agencies believe that party accounts can actually make it harder to

win government business.

After sticking loyally with Labour during its 18 years in the

wilderness, BMP’s reward after Labour’s 1997 victory was to lose its

role as lead agency for the Department of Social Security.

BMP bosses were frustrated by their failure to make the shortlist for

some Whitehall pitches. Labour is sensitive to Tory allegations of

sleaze and so ministers might think twice about giving government work

to the party’s agency.

Indeed, the absence of St Luke’s from the Labour shortlist is believed

to be partly due to its success in winning government work.

’Agencies should be free to work for both a government and party and I

don’t think a party account would either help or hinder them,’ a senior

Whitehall official insists. He said there would have to be Chinese walls

at an agency running campaigns for both at the same time. ’The only

problem would be a campaign on the same issue.’

Another potential minus is that getting into bed with one party will

hardly help an agency when its rival returns to power. Both Labour and

Tory ministers are believed to have ordered that shops linked to their

opponents be left off government shortlists.

Although Blair admits that the Tories are ’not dead, only sleeping’,

agencies know that Labour should be in office for at least another five

years, so the threat of Tory reprisals is muted. As Saatchis’ surprise

place on the Labour shortlist shows, in politics, yesterday’s enemy can

easily become today’s friend.