Arif Durrani, head of media at Campaign, editor of Media Week
Arif Durrani, head of media at Campaign, editor of Media Week
A view from Arif Durrani

Let's hope the govt media review is less political - it's a matter of life and death

Deep breath - here we go again. The Government is in the precursory stages of the statutory review for its media buying requirements. Much has changed since the consolidation of its departmental ad budgets into Group M's purpose-built M4C in 2010.

The emergence of Alex Miller’s new start-up this week (see Campaign's news) reminded me how the decision directly led to the demise of the ten year old I-Level. Caught with too many eggs in one basket, the loss of the £40 million digital billings represented nearly half of the agency’s total business.

The process, of course, will not be run by the COI this time, but rather the new Crown Commercial Service. The decision to dismantle COI three years ago, after operating for 65 years, is now openly lamented by many in the business.

The Government Procurement Service, which handled the reviews of the other communications rosters, found itself in the firing line after almost every major outing, with agencies complaining about unfair selection procedures, badly weighted briefs and unacceptable levels of bureaucracy – and that’s before any pitches had even taken place.

That the media buying process will not involve an e-auction following the debacle of the never-ending strategy and planning framework review in September is telling. In the now infamous process, advertising and media agencies resorted to undercutting one another to ludicrous levels to gain a notional place on the prestigious government roster. Relief finally came only when the e-system imploded. 

The furore resulted in the IPA passing an unprecedented vote of no confidence in the GPS and led to the quick formation of the CCS last month.

'Whatever form the new process takes, it is likely to be the single biggest media account of the year'

Whatever form the new process takes, it is likely to be the single biggest media account of the year. But, of course, even the size of the business is contentious, especially in the run-up to a general election.

When in opposition, David Cameron’s Tories made a big play about how the Labour government was the UK’s biggest advertiser at the height of a recession.

It left the prime minister little option but to slash ads when he came into office, and spend on paid media tumbled from £250 million to less than £50 million in his first year. The impact of such a withdrawal of state advertising is still being realised. Spend on road-safety ads, for example, was hacked back from £20 million to £4 million that year. The following summer, the Department for Transport reported a freak 26 per cent spike in drink-driving deaths in the year, bucking a long-term downward trend.

Expect M4C to provide a robust defence of the business. Pete Kemp has steered a steady ship since becoming managing director three years ago. But there will be strong competition too, with all the major group networks likely to enter a consolidated solution.

Government campaigns are returning, with media buying expected to surpass £170 million in 2014. Regardless of who wins the business, it would be refreshing if we could avoid the perennial politicising of the account. As we will be reminded at the Advertising Association's LEAD conference next week, not only is advertising a vital enabler of the economy, underpinning at least £100 billion of UK GDP last year, but many of these particular ads save lives.