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.