The Government's advertising department has always been one of
those political footballs that is doomed to spend half its time
justifying its own existence, and never more so than this week when one
of its nightmares has been made a reality.
As reported in this week's issue, the Department for Transport, Local
Government and the Regions is attempting to bypass COI Communications by
building its own agency roster. For the many agencies that have just
clawed their expensive way on to new creative and media planning rosters
after a protracted pitch, this constitutes a ridiculous volte-face that
they could well do without.
Actually, five years ago, when COI was celebrating its 50th birthday, it
would have made more sense. For that was when the Cabinet Office allowed
government departments to run their own campaigns and buy their own
advertising instead of being forced to go through COI.
Reacting to that threat, and under the leadership of Carol Fisher and
Peter Buchanan, COI is now a hungrier, leaner, better-structured, more
accountable and less defensive organisation than at any time in its
(It has a pretty good reel too but that is not what we are here to
debate.) By definition it can't please everybody, and there are probably
ways it could improve still further, but most feel it's reached the
stage where it satisfies as many people as possible.
So what could the DTLR do better or differently with its own roster?
Perhaps it could cut costs by avoiding paying the obligatory commission
on its campaigns to COI. However, whether it would obtain the same value
for money as COI is debatable, particularly in media planning and buying
where it spends about £18 million to COI's £190 million. It
could use its own, presumably under-employed, publicity staff, though
whether they are of higher calibre than their COI equivalents is
unknown. It could certainly gain greater control of its communications,
though whether that is necessary after that protracted pitch is also
Last, but by no means least, a dedicated roster would raise the profile
and power quotient of DTLR's experienced communications chief, Charles
Skinner. Skinner, the figure behind the move, is in the interesting
position of having no boss at the moment. His boss, Alun Evans, was
moved from his post after refusing to disseminate "dirty tricks" smears
on Bob Kiley, the London transport commissioner, on the orders of the
Teflon-coated PR, Jo Moore. So while we may not understand the benefits
to the taxpayer of this move, we can all answer the question: "Why's
Skinner doing it?" It's because, in short, he can. However, by the same
token, the same Cabinet Office that allowed government departments to
run their own campaigns could step in and rule that this breakaway is
not only ill-timed, but illogical too. I hope it does.