The new roster of above-the-line agencies assembled by the
Government's COI Communications reads like an advertiser's dream team.
In many ways, this isn't surprising: COI has the pull necessary to
assemble the widest possible range of talent without the usual
constraints of client conflict.
"It's like being allowed to pick any player in the world for your
football team, with no restrictions," one insider at COI says.
The six new players on the team can look forward to pitching for a slice
of the £192 million that the Government currently spends on
advertising each year, while the six agencies dropped from the side -
TBWA/London, CDP, The Leith, Golley Slater, Cogent and Bates UK - are
left licking some potentially expensive wounds.
Carol Fisher, COI's chief executive, is delighted with the new roster,
whittled down from more than 100 agency applications: "I feel very good
about the list. We can offer our clients a really good range of skills,
people and ways of working. I was very excited by the top class people
Fallon, Mother and Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy are the youngest of
the new faces, joined by the more experienced recruits Publicis, Walsh
Trott Chick Smith and Mustoe Merriman Levy. Leo Burnett and Faulds
regained their former positions on the roster.
The influx of smaller shops could well be explained by their perceived
flexibility in turning round tricky government campaigns faster than the
larger agencies. But COI officials insist that small is not always
beautiful if there are not enough resources to cope.
"Carol Fisher and Peter Buchanan (her deputy) gave us a very strong idea
of what it is like working for COI," Walsh Trott Chick Smith's managing
director, Kier Cooper, says. "COI is communicating very complex tasks,
and often telling people things they don't really want to hear. It
wanted to feel that the chemistry was right between us."
Fisher explains that an ability to reach hard-to-target young people is
increasingly important to COI. "We need to find different ways of
getting under the radar," she says.
"Many of the new agencies see themselves more as communications agencies
than ad agencies and understand that advertising is not always the
While refusing to be drawn on individual shops, she adds: "The review
was about taking out some people who have not performed as well as we
would have liked and adding in some potential ones."
The most surprising inclusion on the list of those agencies deemed not
to be performing well was TBWA/London. "I am amazed," the head of one
agency that kept its place on the roster says .
At TBWA, the bad news was received with resignation, rather than
Agency sources insist that when it took on the Labour Party account so
coveted by Trevor Beattie, it guessed that it might be sacrificed from
the COI roster to avoid accusations of "sleaze" and "cronyism".
TBWA bosses are putting on a brave face, recalling that their last
significant government campaign - urging business to prepare for the
single currency - was three years ago. If they were not winning business
anyway, perhaps there was little point in remaining on the roster.
The Labour link was always going to have pros and cons: the general
election went well and the party wants to keep the agency for the next
There is, however, another possible version of events. In government
circles, the word is that the decision to drop TBWA was nothing to do
with party politics. Sources point out that BMP DDB remained on the
government roster when it held the Labour account, as did the Saatchi
brothers while they handled the business of the ruling Conservatives.
Agencies who have worked for the Tories and Liberal Democrats remain on
the roster today.
"I think the Labour link is a complete red herring," one industry
analyst says. "It seems that TBWA and COI have grown apart. Working with
COI is like a relationship; you have to work at it. You need to be
proactive and love it."
Sources within COI say that another dropped agency was far too laid back
for its own good, avoiding contact for 18 months and then making a
panicky telephone call after the review of the roster was announced in
One chief executive whose agency retained its roster place says: "The
review has been much more rigorous this time. COI has upped the
The message we got was that agencies couldn't just let things drift. COI
wanted to make sure we justified a place on the list. We had more work
to do to convince it."
Despite surprise that COI has dropped TBWA, industry reaction towards
the final roster has been favourable. Chris Powell, the chairman of BMP,
says: "A raft of good new agencies has emerged in the past few years. To
make room for new blood, you have to take some off the list - otherwise,
it becomes too long."
The dropped shops should, arguably, have seen the writing on the wall
because COI regularly informs its 30 agencies of their position in its
performance league table. Theoretically, a shop should know early when
it is heading for the relegation zone.
But as the six winners celebrate, they should not get carried away.
Getting on the roster is only the start; now the agencies will have to
win places on fiercely competitive shortlists. Some players in the new
squad are bound to find themselves sitting on the subs bench.