NEWSMAKER/CAROL FISHER: Marketing whirlwind breezes into the COI’s top job - Carol Fisher’s watchword is ’change’. Andrew Grice talks to the new COI chief

When word spread around the advertising world that Carol Fisher was to become chief executive of the Central Office of Information, it did not take long for the rumours to start: surely she would reward her women friends in the industry with government contracts.

When word spread around the advertising world that Carol Fisher was

to become chief executive of the Central Office of Information, it did

not take long for the rumours to start: surely she would reward her

women friends in the industry with government contracts.

’The gossip among the men was that the women might be starting to use

their muscle,’ Fisher says as she settles into her post this week, the

first woman to head the Government’s publicity body in its 53-year


’It’s just ridiculous. We find it hugely entertaining and very ironic

and, frankly, the men have had their own way on the golf course for far

too long.’ Perhaps the gossip had something to do with her role as

secretary of the 100-strong Women’s Advertising Club of London, whose

other luminaries include Christine Walker and Caroline Marland.

The back-biting did not stop many male agency chiefs bombarding Fisher

to remind her of their (often tenuous) connections. ’I have had some of

the most unctuous letters you ever saw in your life,’ she laughs.

Fisher is used to making breakthroughs because she is ’a woman of a

certain age’ (which she declines to reveal). She was the first woman

marketing director in the brewing industry, in which she spent 13 years.

Her spell at Courage’s Holsten, where she worked closely with GGT’s Tim

Mellors, was one of the happiest in her career. But it has been

something of a rollercoaster ride - she was made redundant when Scottish

& Newcastle bought Courage.

She switched successfully from a client to media role, becoming the

first woman boss of a radio sales team at CLT. She turned round Talk

Radio, where sales rocketed 80 per cent in 18 months, but then received

her cards for the second time in three years last September. CLT’s

decision to break up and sell off its UK stations left her without a


Fisher was on a three-week holiday in New Mexico when the pounds

90,000-a-year COI post was advertised, but was approached by a

head-hunter on her return.

Her friend Walker told her it was ’the job of the year’.

’It sounded like a very interesting and a completely unique job,’ Fisher

recalls. ’I like a challenge. I don’t like to do the same as last year

plus 0.5 per cent.’ Her plain-speaking, no-nonsense style apparently

took the Government’s interview board by storm.

She describes her own appointment as ’quite brave’ and a signal that the

COI is going to be a pro-active business. ’There may be some people who

have an image of the COI as a bit old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy. They

will know that is not my style.’

But she acknowledges her tough reputation - ’I am not a pushover’ - will

count for nothing in the Whitehall departments she must persuade to use

the COI if the organisation is to secure the ’change and growth’ which

is her trademark. ’My reputation there is less than zero,’ she


The COI went through a painful slimming-down process under Tony Douglas,

Fisher’s predecessor, cutting its staff by a third to 325. And yet

Whitehall is abuzz with speculation about yet another review of the


Douglas, who left the COI a year before his three-year contract ended to

become chairman of FCB Europe, sees four key challenges facing Fisher:

persuading government departments to use its services; bringing

’outsiders’ like National Savings and the Health Education Authority

under the COI’s umbrella; extending the Government’s use of integrated

campaigns; and ensuring that the COI helps departments draw up their

communications strategy from the outset. ’It has got to get involved

more upstream,’ says Douglas, who sees no need for another review.

The COI’s reputation in Whitehall grew under Douglas, yet it is still

perceived as a sleepy backwater. COI officials are often denied access

to the policy-makers in departments by their heads of information.

Whether Fisher can cut through civil service bureaucracy is a leading


’She will find the rules and regulations very frustrating,’ one insider

says. ’In the private sector, you can decide something and get it done

by tomorrow. In Whitehall the wheels turn very slowly.’

According to Fisher, senior colleagues have been ’extremely


She will not be ’treading on the toes’ of Peter Buchanan, the director

of marketing communications (who Douglas recommended for the job).

’Peter is doing a great job and is very well respected,’ Fisher


Early impressions of the new chief executive are positive. ’She’s a bit

of a whirlwind,’ one COI staffer quips. ’There will be a lot of early

mornings and late nights.’

And although it’s ’much too early’ to talk about her plans for COI,

Fisher says: ’I like to get my teeth into something and learn as I’m

helping an organisation to improve.’ She is convinced the body is held

in very high regard in the advertising and media worlds. ’Its drive for

accountability has helped a lot of agencies do the same - because it is

always spending someone else’s money, the COI has to justify it.’

Fisher is well aware of agency grumbles that government work, however

prestigious and challenging, does not pay. ’Everyone I have spoken to

says the COI doesn’t make them any money but it is funny that none of

them wants to stop pitching. I don’t think the COI expects people to


But what of the speculation about the COI’s future? ’Most organisations

are under continuous review. This Government has made quality

communications part of its agenda; it would be naive of me to expect

that the COI will not be under the spotlight. However, there was major

surgery a couple of years ago and I certainly would not anticipate

another round of that. I have not come here to manage a decline.’

On media buying, Fisher believes ’might is definitely right’. But she

knows the COI must offer more than the discounts stemming from the

Government’s purchasing power. She points to its expertise, ability to

spread best practice and bring departments together - what Tony Blair

calls ’joined-up government’.

Fisher has warned agencies that she always demands ’great creative work’

and is ’relentless’ about quality. ’I don’t apologise for wanting the

best people on my business.’ And she is ready to face down those

industry gossips: ’When I worked in brewing, there were dinners with 350

men and me. I am not scared of the boys on the golf course.’

Andrew Grice is political editor of The Independent.


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