LIVE ISSUE/GOVERNMENT ADVERTISING: How Labour’s new broom swept away ad apathy - But is the flurry of activity just style over substance? Andrew Grice investigates

When a pushy agency boss thrust his business card into the hand of Peter Mandelson at a pre-Christmas reception and asked him to ’put a word in’ before a government pitch, the then Trade and Industry Secretary looked slightly uncomfortable. But he was happy to talk about past competitions.

When a pushy agency boss thrust his business card into the hand of

Peter Mandelson at a pre-Christmas reception and asked him to ’put a

word in’ before a government pitch, the then Trade and Industry

Secretary looked slightly uncomfortable. But he was happy to talk about

past competitions.

’I was very impressed with St Luke’s - it was really hungry,’ Mandelson,

who sat in on the agency’s presentation for the pounds 9.3 million New

Deal campaign, said.

Civil servants are struck by the close relations between ministers and

the advertising industry. In opposition, the Labour Party refined its

communications skills and created the most formidable campaign machine

ever seen in British politics. So once in power, Labour was bound to

take a closer interest in advertising than its Tory predecessors ever


Despite Labour’s predictions that it would change the pattern of ad

spending rather than boost the total budget, it is perhaps no surprise

that this week’s forecasts suggest a big jump in the Government’s spend

in this financial year - by as much as 30 per cent.

’There has been a change since the general election,’ one Whitehall

source says. ’Ministers today appreciate advertising more than any other


In the past, ministers looked down their noses at advertising; they saw

it as something for selling soap powder but nothing to do with

government. Now it’s much higher up the pecking order.’

Even busy Cabinet ministers adopt a hands-on approach. Although they do

not normally sit in on pitches, they often insist on a ten-minute

mini-presentation before approving a recommendation by officials, who

usually have a ’reserve campaign’ on hand in case the minister does not

like their favoured option.

Under Labour, special advisers to ministers take an increasingly close

interest in pitches and will often brief ministers on the key decisions

before the short presentation. Civil servants mostly welcome their input

and knowledge of the ministers’ minds.

The Tories claim the current flurry of government pitches reflects what

they see as Labour’s obsession with style over substance. Whatever the

truth of that, Labour’s ministers do seem more prepared than their

predecessors to put big bucks into advertising.

The list of campaigns since May 1997 also reflects Labour’s different

policy priorities. A common thread is the determination of the Prime

Minister, Tony Blair, to tackle social exclusion, which has resulted in

campaigns for the New Deal, working family tax credit, the national

minimum wage and child literacy. Health has enjoyed a higher priority

under Labour - the Government has bumped up the pounds 3 million-a-year

anti-smoking campaign to a pounds 50 million blitz over the next three


The Tories spent more on crime prevention, while other campaigns

reflected the party’s priority for economic rather than social affairs;

the Department of Trade and Industry was a big spender under Margaret


Peter Buchanan, the director of marketing communications at the Central

Office of Information, says three agencies have ’performed particularly

well’ under Labour. They are St Luke’s (which won New Deal for the

jobless and working family tax credit); FCA! (which took the Queen’s

Awards, Action 2000 on the millennium bug and New Deal for lone parents)

and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO (mobile phone safety, anti-drink drive and

climate change).

Although AMV is a long-established government agency, St Luke’s and FCA!

only joined the roster after the 1997 election - although the review was

carried out by the COI without political input.

Buchanan plays down the idea that New Labour has brought in a fresh

approach. ’Advertising must constantly change and adapt to changes in

society and adopt a positioning, style and tone of voice that the

audience finds engaging and credible,’ he says.

Romola Christopherson, the former director of press and publicity at the

Department of Health and now a communications consultant, insists the

Tories began taking a closer interest in advertising while in


’Ministers became more engaged with the detail,’ she says. ’But under

Labour, this has been allied to a good deal more knowledge of what

advertising is about.’

Some civil servants have been surprised to find ministers so well

informed about ad agencies. ’It’s partly a social thing; they seem to

move in the same circles and some agencies are well-connected,’ an

insider says.

But such links do not always pay dividends. Indeed, some agency chiefs

believe they can be counter-productive. Government officials, who must

uphold the rules banning political advertising at the taxpayers’

expense, are often wary of shortlisting agencies that have strong party


BMP DDB, which ran Labour’s 1997 election campaign, has since lost out

on government work, losing its status as lead agency at the Department

of Social Security and missing out on several other shortlists. The

other big loser was DMB&B, which has lost much of its road safety


The interest Labour takes in advertising can only be good news for the

industry. But agencies will still be judged on their performance, rather

than their connections with the movers and shakers of New Labour.

Andrew Grice is the political editor of The Independent


St Luke’s: Working family tax credit, pounds 6m; New Deal/welfare to

work, pounds 9m

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO: Greenhouse gases/climate change, pounds 1.7m;

anti-drink drive, pounds 2m; mobile phone safety, pounds 250,000

FCA! Action 2000 on the millennium bug, pounds 10m; Queen’s awards,

pounds 500,000; New Deal for lone parents, pounds 2.5m

Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe: Millennium gift aid, pounds 4m

M&C Saatchi: Millennium public awareness, pounds 16m TBWA GGT Simons

Palmer Euro preparation, pounds 5m

DMB&B: Jobline direct, pounds 3m; child literacy, pounds 2.5m; World Cup

anti-hooliganism, pounds 1m. Account lost: anti-drink drive, pounds


Lowe Howard-Spink: Domestic electricity supply competition, pounds 2m;

Mis-selling of personal pensions, pounds 10m

BMP DDB: Cold weather payments to pensioners, pounds 1.5m

Ogilvy & Mather: Organ donors, pounds 1m

Mellors Reay & Partners/Grey Advertising: National Health Service

helpline, pounds 1m

CDP: Business Links, pounds 1.5m

Outstanding pitches: ISAs: Rainey Kelly, Ammirati Puris Lintas, Euro

RSCG Wnek Gosper.


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