Close-Up: Newsmaker - Outspoken peer prepares for AA challenge

Peta Buscombe, the Advertising Association's next boss, believes the industry needs to be more proactive.

Peta Buscombe and the Conservatives, the party she has served faithfully from the council rooms of South Oxfordshire to the floor of the House of Lords, both signalled breaks with their past last week.

While Baroness Buscombe was getting ready to bring down the curtain on her tenure as a Tory frontbencher and return to the commercial world as the next boss of the Advertising Association, the Tory conference agreed that the time had now come to consider a ban on marketing to children.

It would be an irony were the two events to pitch the incoming AA chief executive and director-general into battle with her erstwhile political masters when she takes up her new role next year.

Understandably, Buscombe sees the issue less as a potential flashpoint and more the manifestation of changing social attitudes. If David Cameron's Tories are more rigorous in their questioning of advertising's ethics than ever before, they are just reflecting what is happening in society as a whole.

"If you had said to me five years ago that smoking would be banned in private clubs, I would have said it would never happen," she says. "If you had also said that certain food products might face a ban on being advertised to children, I would have replied this was far-fetched. Yet these things are a reality."

There has never been a greater need for the industry to be proactive in making its case and sensitive to cultural shifts. Whether the issue is obesity, binge-drinking or marketing to children, advertising has become a soft target, she claims. Add to that the proliferation of single-issue pressure groups, which have become more sophisticated in their use of PR and in the way they influence legislators, as well as the implications for advertising of the digital revolution and the scale of her challenge quickly emerges.

Those who know her expect Buscombe to tackle it with her usual energy. Although her style suggests an expensive boarding-school education, the winemaker's daughter and one-time wannabe actress actually failed her eleven-plus and spent her early years at a Surrey secondary modern. She later made it into a grammar school sixth form before going to university and was called to the Bar in 1977.

Whether or not she will lay down the law at the AA remains to be seen. Given her background, her approach and focus can be expected to be a bit different from that of her job's current occupant, Andrew Brown, a classically trained JWT senior account man before he joined the AA 13 years ago.

One telling sign may be that, while Brown was the AA's director-general, Buscombe has had "chief executive" added to the title. "The expectation is that 'director- general' will disappear," she says. "It isn't that our remit will alter, it's just that 'director-general' sounds old-fashioned; we want to reflect a more businesslike approach."

Certainly, the AA believes that in Buscombe it has found somebody with the right combination of skill and experience to take it into a new era. As a shadow minister covering the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, she is well grounded in the new media platforms. Also, as a commercial lawyer, she has seen the industry from the inside (she was the IPA's legal advisor for three years), has a network of contacts across the political spectrum and won many friends in the industry during the passage of the Communications Bill through the Lords.

Buscombe is also unafraid to speak her mind. In 2001, as Conservative vice-chairman with the responsibility of getting more women involved in the party mainstream, she claimed the Tories were rife with "sexual apartheid" and claimed neither of the then leadership contenders, Ken Clarke and Ian Duncan Smith, were bothered about attracting more women.

Today, she remains a passionate advocate of women having families and careers. A mother of three and married to the chief executive of a private equity company, she says she was aghast when her own mother asked if she planned to stop work after her wedding.

"Peta is about as far from a classic politician as it's possible to get," remarks Mark Lund, the AA chairman and head of the committee which picked Buscombe from a list of more than 20 candidates.

Philip Circus, who worked with Buscombe when he was the IPA's legal affairs director, says: "She's perfect for the job because, as a lawyer, she understands advertising regulation, and she is also a good communicator."

Hamish Pringle, the IPA director general, is just as enthusiastic. "Peta is a real 'get-it-done' person," he says. "Having somebody so deeply embedded in the political process will be of huge benefit to us."

However, Buscombe insists she has not taken the AA job because of limited future career prospects in the Lords, where she is the Conservatives' education spokesperson. "I'd been feeling for some time that I would like to take what I've learned back to the commercial world," she says. "It's a place where I feel very comfortable."

But can she adapt to an apolitical job that involves creating consensus among an AA membership whose agendas are not always similar? No problem, she says. She believes her experience in the Lords, where peers work in a more collaborative fashion than MPs, will be a distinct advantage.

Another reason may be that she finds the ad industry beguiling. "It's full of amazing people," she says. "I feel lucky to be involved again."


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