CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/TONY DOUGLAS; COI learns from the poacher turned gamekeeper

In an exclusive interview, the COI’s chief reveals his blueprint to Andrew Grice

In an exclusive interview, the COI’s chief reveals his blueprint to

Andrew Grice

Who will be top of the Christmas card list for agencies this year? It

must be Tony Douglas, the new chief executive of the Central Office of

Information. The 37 agencies on its roster sometimes whinge about its

penny-pinching and bureaucracy, but they need government business and

come back for more. Other shops are desperate to get on the list.

‘Everybody in the industry wants to have lunch with Tony Douglas,’ one

agency boss says.

The former joint chairman of DMB&B will keep them waiting until the new

year, when he will start a programme of visits to agencies that handle

government campaigns. Seven weeks into his job and 22 months after a

bruising enforced departure from DMB&B he is enjoying life on the other

side and, friends say, the wounds have almost healed.

Douglas joined the COI in October, replacing Mike Devereau who held the

job for seven years. Officials at the COI and the Cabinet Office (which

oversees the COI) view the new chief as ‘a breath of fresh air’. Douglas

insists he has ‘detected no hostility’ in Whitehall - where some civil

servants were initially sceptical that an adman, and an ‘outsider’,

could handle the COI job, predicting ministers and Sir Humphreys might

eat him for breakfast.

After almost 30 years in advertising, Douglas did wonder how he would

adjust to the ‘different culture of Government’. At DMB&B, he had little

contact with the COI, leaving government accounts to Graham Hinton, his

long-standing agency partner. He says, however, that there are

similarities between his old and new roles. Now that Whitehall

departments no longer have to use the COI and can run their own

campaigns, Douglas must act as a salesman who keeps the COI’s clients

happy and drums up new business.

‘I have no worries on that score,’ he says. ‘I am selling the COI’s

expertise in communications. That’s what I have been doing in agencies

for a long time.’

The greatest threat to the COI’s long-term survival is that some big-

spending department will pool its media buying and break away. That

would rob Douglas of his biggest selling point - the huge discounts he

can lever because of the government’s buying power.

So far, Douglas has detected no signs of a breakaway, but he cannot take

any chances. ‘No department has to use us. No-one owes us a living,’ he

admits. ‘In many cases it will mean selling and reselling what we can do

for them. But as long as we continue to deliver value for our clients,

there is absolutely no reason why the COI should not have a secure


He laughs when asked whether he is a poacher turned gamekeeper. But

agencies are wondering whether he will prove a sympathetic friend who

understands their needs, or whether he will be gobbled up by the

Whitehall machine. Indeed, Douglas admits the COI is bound to force

agencies to provide better value for money: ‘If we are being squeezed to

be more efficient and effective, we would have to expect the same from

those who work with us.’

But he also has some reassuring words for the industry. ‘What we are

about is providing our clients and the taxpayer with the best value for

money, but that is not always the cheapest option. Sometimes you can get

a better result by spending a little more.’

Although he does not rule out payment-by-results for agencies in the

long term, he insists there are no immediate plans to introduce it. His

priority is to ensure that the COI’s sophisticated computer analysis of

previous campaigns make the new ones more effective. But agencies will

still have a crucial role: computer analysis will be no substitute for

‘creative input’, he says.

While Douglas feels at home talking about agencies, advertising is only

one part of a much bigger empire that offers the whole range of

communications, from the smallest leaflet to the biggest TV campaign.

Douglas will, however, have a taxing task as a manager. The COI is under

pressure from ministers to cut its overheads and that means cutting

jobs. In a self-written brief on how he sees his role, which he uses in

presentations to staff, the headings include ‘provocation’ as well as

‘motivation’ and ‘support’. Despite his mild-mannered style, there is

steel underneath and he says he will use sticks as well as carrots. He

has already pushed through a shake-up of its senior management

(Campaign, 22 November) under which six new client service directors

will ensure its top brass are in closer contact with those it serves in

Whitehall. They will offer a single point of contact with departments

and there will be an annual audit of what the COI provides for them.

Other changes will follow before a slimline COI emerges next April.

Douglas was hungry for a new challenge and he has found one. His pension

from DMB&B meant he wasn’t on the streets, but he was getting ‘pretty

fed up’ in the relative wilderness of consultancy. His pay-off was a

stroke of luck for the Government, which wanted a private sector star

but was unlikely to get one for the pounds 75,000 a year it was

offering. Douglas, though, jumped at the chance when the Cabinet Office

headhunters called.

Douglas, 51, has a three-year contract but says he has ‘no fixed

horizons’ and ‘will stay as long as I am enjoying it and they want me’.

On first impressions, he will be in demand for a long time, and not just

among the agencies beating a path to his door.

Andrew Grice is political editor of the Sunday Times


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