The Government Communication Centre: life after the COI

DH rolling out anti-smoking 'health harm' drive
DH rolling out anti-smoking 'health harm' drive

As the COI shuts up shop, the new public ad structures, under the auspices of the Government Communication Centre, are under scrutiny.


It has been a long goodbye, but last week the COI shut its doors for good.

Its demise is well-documented; once the coalition government was installed, adspend - which had soared under Labour - was slashed in line with its much-vaunted austerity drive. Ministers reasoned that there was no need for the COI, and since last year has been winding down.

The Government Communication Centre (GCC), led by executive director of government communications Jenny Grey, will pick up some of the COI's duties, although the Cabinet Office has stressed that it is not a replacement.

The GCC comprises 150 people, but just 30 or so of those are in new posts to take over some of COI's former work. Industry commentators have voiced concerns that the knowledge and best-practice expertise championed by the COI will be lost, a charge denied by Gray.

Roster set-up

Under the new regime, departments will directly hire agencies selected for a roster by the Government Procurement Service. As part of another change, Whitehall marketers will work together in seven 'hubs' - groupings of departments and arm's-length bodies judged to have overlapping objectives.

Output will meet a 'government communications plan', formulated by the hubs and GCC. Grey says 'there is no golden number' on adspend but that it will not return to pre-2010 levels.

However, while spend was cut drastically in the first year of the coalition government, it is beginning to pick up again. Last week, the Department of Health (DH) rolled out its first major 'health-harm' anti-smoking drive for five years across TV and press.

DH marketing director Sheila Mitchell (right) says that departments will monitor the new way of working. 'In six months we will think about what works and what might have fallen through the gaps,' she adds.

In the debate below, which was hosted by Thinkbox last week, Mark Lund, former chief executive of the COI, conceded that not all public adspend was worthwhile.

'After six months we came to the conclusion that 60% of what we were doing was effective, 20% capable of improvement, and 20% was daft.'

The overhauled marketing structure is designed to vastly improve these statistics; there will be many interested parties watching to see whether it can.




The motion was proposed at the Debating Group event which took place last week at the House of Commons. Below is a summary of the arguments made.


Stephen Woodford, chairman and chief executive, DDB

Mark Lund, co-founder and managing director, Now (former COI chief)

Woodford (right) began by bemoaning that the debate about government advertising focused on its benefits to the nation too often. While COI adspend has fallen drastically, under Labour it rocketed to an annual total of £540m. 'Compared with the costs to society of many of the behaviours they seek to influence, either positively or negatively, the adspends, even in the boom years, were trivial,' he said.

Such investment can improve society in many ways, he added, from reducing unnecessary deaths and injuries, improving health and well-being, through to improving the UK's GDP and Gross Happiness Index score.

Quoting the 2008 IPA booklet, 'How public service advertising works', Wood said the ROI on public service cases is much higher than in the private sector.

Woodford also highlighted teacher recruitment, claiming the campaign paid for itself between 110 and 150 times over, with an estimated payback of £665.4m through recruiting 7766 teachers.

Lund (right) argued: 'Change4Life is a bargain if it is helping prevent a problem that costs
the NHS £4bn a year, (and is projected to) cost £15bn in 20 years' time. Of all the levers that government can pull, advertising remains one of the cheapest.'



Matthew Sinclair, director, Taxpayers' Alliance

Matt Tee, former permanent secretary for government communication

Sinclair's contention was that government advertising was a 'huge deadbeat cost'. He added that it rarely reaches the right audience, and even when it does is rarely effective.

He poured scorn on the effectiveness measurements used for government advertising, questioning whether they proved that money is saved. The private sector was 'more rigorous' when it came to ROI, he added.

Sinclair cited campaigns where he felt the cost-benefit analysis was doubtful, including the tax-reminder ads featuring Moira Stewart, and anti-smoking campaigns. 'Anti-smoking advertising is not a bad thing, but it is difficult to estimate what smoking costs the NHS. If anti-smoking messages save money in the short term, more money will be required if people live longer,' he said.

'Advertising can be effective in making small changes but it is less effective in addressing behaviour that will actually save money,' he claimed.

Tee (right) said that before the coalition came to power some campaigns were based on 'poor insight and had very soft outcome measures'.

'Government was so bad at buying and measuring advertising that it could not know whether it saves the country money,' he added.

Debate report by Phyllis Vangelder



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