Editorial: Public-service expertise will benefit the frugal age

COI isn't your everyday client. It is one of the UK's biggest advertisers, yet it has championed some of the country's smallest, but most creatively potent agencies.

Its accumulated reel is crammed with award-winning work and yet it has been known to upbraid a roster agency for not showing the courage of its creative convictions. Little wonder that so many creatives relish the chance to slip the leash of their more conventional clients.

But creatives, particularly those nearer the start of their careers than the end of them, can deceive themselves into believing that a COI brief is a licence to shock or get away with saying and showing things that would see most advertisers carpeted by the Advertising Standards Authority. Sometimes that's true. But public-service advertising often requires a different mindset. It's nowhere near as easy as it looks, which is why the new "how to do it" guide published by COI and the IPA will be a welcome addition to any agency library.

COI briefs call for sophisticated thinking combined with outstanding creativity. This is mainly because of public ambivalence about government-inspired messages. People hate being lectured, but they'll be quick enough to protest about insufficient warnings if and when disaster strikes. As the catalyst for such communication, COI is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't.

So striking the right balance is vital. Shock tactics sometimes work in public-service advertising, but they have to be used sparingly. Sometimes campaigns, particularly those addressing drug abuse or promoting sexual health, have to recognise that the target audience may sometimes behave illegally or immorally without condoning such behaviour.

At a time when WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell says conspicuous consumption is to be discouraged, agencies may have to get used to doing more work that encourages consumers to consume less or differently. How long before the skills honed in public-service advertising become just as relevant in the commercial arena?