CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/ALAN BISHOP - Bishop prepares to grace corridors of Whitehall

COI's new chief is going to need all his client-facing skills.

If there's one thing Alan Bishop should put on his Christmas list, it's a large-scale map of Westminster. From January, the former Saatchi & Saatchi chairman is taking on the role of chief executive of COI Communications, and will be plunging headlong into a world where being able to navigate through politics, as well as Whitehall's corridors of power, will be essential.

Bishop replaces Carol Fisher in a £120,000-a-year role that has been vacant since Fisher's resignation in the summer. Not only is he hungry for the challenge, having been shuffled out of Saatchis in January by a swash-buckling new management, but supporters say he is well-equipped to deal with the top job in one of Britain's biggest advertisers.

"There are three core areas in which Alan excels," one source close to the selection process reveals. "To do this job, you've got to have good client-contact skills. You've got to be a good thinker and have clear strategic insights. And you've also got to have experience in running a substantial business. Alan has all those skills."

Bishop took over as Saatchis' chairman in 1996 after a stint in New York, building up the network offices there. Previously, he had been the vice-chairman at Charlotte Street, building a career that has centred around global clients such as Procter & Gamble. "He's not an overtly political creature, but he's showed his mettle throughout his career, surviving the split in 1994, working through the politics of a big network and dealing brilliantly with huge clients," a former colleague says. The M&C Saatchi partner Bill Muirhead, with whom Bishop worked in New York, adds: "Alan is a great facilitator. He woos until he wins."

To boot, Bishop beat some tough candidates for the job, including Shell International's vice-president, global brands and communications, Raoul Pinnell, and the Department of Work and Pensions' director of communications, Simon MacDowell.

And, for what it's worth, he comes with a thumbs-up from Fisher. "Alan is known as a people person, and I'm really pleased that the Government has chosen someone who will get on well with clients and COI staff," she says.

Even agency bosses who were gunning for the COI deputy chief executive, Peter Buchanan, to take the top spot before it emerged that he had opted not to apply are happy. "They have obviously thought long and hard about hiring Alan, and the selection committee will have been no pushover. He's obviously impressed them, and we're looking forward to working with him," the chief executive of one of COI's biggest roster agencies says.

This all bodes well for Bishop, who inherits a government, and marketing, machine in rude health. Campaign's Advertiser of the Year for 2001 is a client pretty much every agency in the UK wants to work for. Fisher has helpfully steered it through the quinquennial review, and conducted a review of its roster in 2001. However, it has seen some colourful times this year.

First, there was the breakaway of the Department of Transport, which, under the director of communications, Charles Skinner, operates its own roster and does not appoint agencies through COI. It was this issue, as well as a lack of support from the Cabinet, which is said to have upset Fisher and caused her resignation.

Next came the issue of how much influence is exerted on COI by Number 10's director of communications, Alastair Campbell, after it was announced in February that Fisher would report directly to him in a new government-wide advisory role. There was also the issue of the Government's adspend, which, despite a hefty fall to £165 million for the year to April 2002, still raised questions about whether taxpayers were getting value for money. A Panorama documentary focusing on the issue fanned the flames further.

Neither Bishop nor COI would comment on his appointment, but sources suggest one of Bishop's key tasks will be to attempt to bring the DoT back into the fold, both to reclaim the department's advertising clout and stem the possibility of any other departments deciding the route is an easily navigable one. The Department of Health was rumoured to be considering a similar move last year, and this must not happen. "He will need to quickly understand the issues surrounding the DoT's decision to source its advertising and marketing independently and work towards reversing that," one senior source says.

It emerged this week that Bishop will not continue in the wider advisory role to Campbell, although the official reasons for its conception - to allow COI and Downing Street to work in a more "joined-up" way on issues where communications could be combined for better impact - imply that some intervention is needed.

Then there's the rapport he needs to build with both COI's clients - the departments with the budgets - and the agencies which make up the roster. Most of those he'll be dealing with consider this to be an easy task for the easy-going Bishop, especially with his experience of above- and below-the-line advertising agencies and network issues. Some would say his most important task lies in internal networking, gaining the confidence of senior policy-makers and departmental chiefs.

His relationship with Buchanan is also crucial. Luckily, Buchanan is enthusiastic about Bishop's appointment, having worked with him at Saatchis. He says: "We were group account directors in the mid-90s and got on brilliantly. I remember him as a colleague who was passionate about the business he worked on. I'm sure we'll work well together, and will benefit from having a shared heritage."

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