Opinion: Perspective - COI does well to recognise media strategy power

The most difficult briefs in advertising come from COI. Making Skoda sexy is a walk in the park compared with persuading teenagers to use condoms, or getting smokers to stop smoking.

Half the battle is fought by the creative agencies. Finding a treatment that gets the message across without making voters feel they are being preached at is rule number one. But of equal importance to a campaign is the role of the media strategists.

This is because so many of COI's messages need to get at hard-to-reach demographic groups. Sexual health and drug-awareness messages need to reach rowdy teenagers, for example. It makes good sense, therefore, that COI has this week doubled the size of its media strategy roster from seven to 14 agencies.

Television advertising is still absolutely relevant to such audiences, but surprising them with an ad-emblazoned beer-mat while they are out in the pub could get them while their guard is down and the message is relevant. If the Government wants unwelcome messages to get through, it needs to find new and relevant communications platforms.

COI's pitching protocol of teaming planning agencies with creative agencies is unpopular because neither side can completely control its pitch success. But from COI's point of view, it also risks the loss of some of the best ideas. A great strategic communications idea could fall flat on its face if the creative idea it has been forced to share its pitch time with is weak. This is a flaw in COI's activity and one it would do well to address.

This week, I was phoned by a research company commissioned by the Department of Health to garner opinion on "social marketing". The questions were designed to determine if it is possible to alter social behaviour and, if so, what's the best way of doing this. The implications are clear: the Department of Health is doing some serious soul-searching.

It has already slashed its advertising budget by 25 per cent over the past two years. COI has a challenge on its hands if it is going to prove to the Department of Health that sending out health messages is money well spent.

The timing seems strange, however. Earlier this month, the snack-food giant Walkers announced it was reducing the fat content of its crisps by 30 per cent and Tesco is currently running a high-profile television campaign showing off its clear food-labelling system. Neither move has come about because the private sector has suddenly developed a conscience, but rather consumers are favouring a healthy lifestyle. This is some of the strongest evidence you could hope for that a healthy living message has got through to the public. The wide-ranging smoking ban voted in this week seems entirely in keeping with the nation's growing inclination towards a healthy lifestyle.

British consumers are more informed and concerned about health than ever before. This has a lot to do with high-profile editorial in the press and on television (Jamie's School Dinners, Bodyshock: Half Ton Man, You Are What You Eat) but government advertising campaigns have also played a role. COI campaigns for reducing salt intake and quitting smoking stand out. COI, and its enlarged strategy roster, must keep this momentum going.

When Nancy Vonk posted a blog about Neil French's after-dinner speech at a Canadian event last October, she had no idea that she would set in motion a chain of events that would lead to an international media storm. She awoke to a global scandal about the attitudes towards women in the advertising industry.

Her story demonstrated the power of the blog and on page 28, Vonk offers us a step-by-step guide to the rights and wrongs of blogging. It's still a niche communications tool and it's still in its infancy, but savvy marketers are hurrying to get to grips with it.


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