Public service or Propaganda?: The increased advertising budget of the COI under New Labour has led to claims of bias. Ian Darby reports

The Labour Party has used marketing like no other political party before it. Tony Blair and key crony Peter Mandelson led the modernisation of the party spearheaded by an obsession with communications and spin.

The Labour Party has used marketing like no other political party

before it. Tony Blair and key crony Peter Mandelson led the

modernisation of the party spearheaded by an obsession with

communications and spin.

But now, two years into its term, Labour is being accused of

overstepping the mark with its communications strategy. First, the

Conservative party accused Blair of politicising Whitehall’s media

relations service, the Government Information and Communications Service

(GICS), by hiring Labour supporters to turn it into a party propaganda


Now the finger is pointing at the government’s use of advertising. Spend

by government departments through the Central Office of Information

(COI) hit a record pounds 105m in 1998-99, up 79% on the previous year

and pounds 35m more than the Conservatives spent in their last year in


This record spending on campaigns to publicise Blair’s key social

policies, the New Deal, and Working Families Tax Credit (WFTC), led

shadow home secretary Anne Widdecombe to call for an ad spending


At first glance, there seems to be some justification for Tory


Blair’s key election pledges centred on health, education and


Ad spend in these areas has increased significantly. In the middle of

its last term, the Tories spent pounds 11m on communicating Department

of Education and Employment policy. Under Labour, this has risen to

pounds 25.7m, partly because of the pounds 11m New Deal campaign.

Social change

Some say this is legitimate. Mike Davis, executive director at COI

roster agency Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper, says: ’The government wants to

change things so there is more social content in its advertising.’

Through the late 1980s, the Tories spent more on advertising, if you

take into account inflation, than the present administration. Ten years

ago spend was pounds 98m, and the previous record of pounds 104m was in


Much of this spend was channelled through the DTI or to publicise a

string of privatisations. Under COI guidelines, the Tories had every

right to communicate the policy of privatisation and the enterprise

culture but at the time, Labour cried foul, with MP Graham Allen

complaining that ’the DTI’s ethos of advertising is becoming blatantly


Now it’s the Tories complaining about ’political’ public


Chris Powell, chairman of BMP DDB, says both parties tend to be


But he adds: ’There’s only one campaign that overstepped the mark - a

DTI campaign in the late 1980s. It didn’t communicate policy but

basically said ’We’re bloody great’.’

Powell is referring to a pounds 15m campaign in 1988 through WCRS to

relaunch the DTI as the ’the Department for Enterprise’. But Powell

argues that it is perfectly legitimate for Labour to spend pounds 11m

communicating the New Deal, or for the Tory party to advertise


Steve Hilton, a partner at social marketing firm Good Business, ran the

last Tory election campaign at M&C Saatchi. He says: ’It’s legitimate

for the government to promote policy where it is required to make the

public do something. The only difference is that this government does it

better than the previous one. I reject the propaganda argument.’

Some observers express concern. One source cites the recent nurses’

recruitment campaign: ’How do you judge if Labour has overstepped the

mark? On the one hand, there is a critical shortage of nurses and

concern over pay. On the other, there is Labour policy to improve the

NHS and a suspicion that Blair made political capital out of the


Ensuring governments don’t stray into propaganda is the job of the


It has to remain neutral and carefully police government


Chief executive Carol Fisher says the COI can act as a check on

ministers who are in danger of pushing party political content in ads.

’If we are asked by a politician to do something for political advantage

then we refuse.’

Powell also believes government ads are well policed. ’There is a set of

rules to police advertising and the COI does this very well.’ Any

campaign that is seen to overstep the boundaries is swiftly


The COI, while it is run by the Cabinet Office, is responsible to

Parliament and to the Public Accounts Committee. Agencies say the office

oversees the whole advertising process, from pitching through to the

finished work. This helps to ensure that campaigns are won and run


BMP was Labour’s agency at the last election but this has done Powell no

favours: ’We did well in winning COI accounts under the Conservatives

but, so far, we have done poorly under Labour.’

Fisher says: ’It is a tightrope. People always argue that the mark is

overstepped but it’s not a fight we get involved in. Even the most

expensive campaigns, such as the WFTC, which is costing pounds 12m over

three months, support large programmes - in this case a pounds 5bn


Measurement criteria

David Abraham, chief operating officer of St Luke’s, says: ’We have

dealt with two very big policies to promote things for disadvantaged


I would make no apology for communicating in an emotional and powerful

way. Nothing we have done has caused technical problems - it adheres to

all the known rules. With the WFTC, there is a lot of enthusiasm in the

approach because research showed that once people get to know about tax

benefits, they want to spread the message.’

The COI is vitally important to Labour. Chris Pinnington, managing

director of Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper, says: ’This government is very

cautious about being seen as profligate but because the COI is very good

at judging effectiveness, it can defend these allegations. It has good

measuring systems in place.’

The COI has a rigorous system to evaluate campaigns, set targets for

response and obtain savings from media buying. Fisher has established a

strategic consultancy unit to offer Whitehall departments advice on

marketing, even if a large media spend is not part of the campaign.

Cilla Snowball, deputy managing director of COI roster agency Abbott

Mead Vickers BBDO, says: ’The most important area is the expertise and

advice the COI provides. It points out ideas that have or haven’t worked

in the past. It can draw on research and advise on web sites and


Fisher says: ’The COI is known as an excellent procurer of services.

Under the last government, this was an important part of the way the

service was judged. But the new administration has interests in

different areas because they are committed to communicating with

everybody in society. They are forced to think ’how should we tackle

this?’. It’s not just them ringing up for a TV campaign and doing it.

Sometimes direct marketing or a web site is more suitable.’

COI accounts show that it is more than a giant media-buying


From a total spend of pounds 173.4m last year, direct marketing and

promotions accounted for pounds 21.2m, a leap from pounds 9.6m the year

before. The COI also runs 70 web sites for government departments.

Fisher expects the government’s spend to continue to rise because of

media fragmentation.

Fisher points out that some of the most successful work undertaken by

the COI has been in media to support advertising. For instance, 30% of

responses to Army recruitment ads, through Saatchi and Saatchi, come via

the internet. Call-centres are an important part of the COI’s consulting

process because 80% of the COI’s advertising is direct response.

The success of this call handling can be impressive - St Luke’s New Deal

ads attracted over one million calls.

By its very nature the COI is a political football and, as such, it has

not had an easy ride.It has faced two reviews of its status in the past

five years. The Tories ordered cuts which resulted in COI staffing

falling from over 1000 to 325. It also took away the COI’s monopoly on

running government campaigns and gave departments the power to look


Last year, the COI, which was formed in 1946, faced another review by

Blair’s administration which looked at privatisation. This hasn’t

happened but the COI must face a status review every five years.

Fisher says the shake-ups and its ’quasi-commercial’ status have had

some positive effects. ’We have to supply as competitive an offering as

any supplier,’ she says. Consultancy takes on more importance, as does

the COI’s ability to offer value for money based on its pounds 105m

buying power.

But could the COI become more marginalised? One agency chief says:

’There is more centralised control of advertising under Labour, with

individual ministers ensuring they are happy with what is done.’

This process was begun by the Conservatives, with departments such as

Transport, Environment and the Regions, the Home Office and Ministry of

Defence forging close links with the ad agencies over time.

Another COI agency source says: ’By definition, the COI is a


It can give a recommendation but it doesn’t have the final say or


Historically, government departments have not been experienced about

advertising and needed the COI. But certain departments have got a lot

more into advertising and don’t rely on the COI as much.’

One department chief, who refuses to be named, has built up close agency

relationships and does not use the COI for regular strategic input. But

he recently hit a problem and called on Fisher. ’She was in the

department within 24 hours. She put forward an argument, was helpful in

getting us to look at new things and then helped us create a

presentation. I’m now a fan of the COI.’

A significant factor in the survival of the COI is the quality of its

output. Most non-COI roster agencies agree that its reel is very


Fisher mentions several campaigns which have worked especially well: AMV

BBDO’s rear seat-belts work, TBWA GGT Simons Palmer’s ’Martin Skinner’

ads, which addressed the impact of the euro, and Saatchi & Saatchi’s

Army recruitment ads.

Seventeen COI campaigns have won IPA awards since 1980. The most recent

were the euro preparation work and the Army recruitment ads. It is not

just the high profile campaigns that work. Euro RSCG’s ’Hector the

Inspector’ tax campaign has also yielded results.

Fisher says: ’I was at a conference in Milan and many of my opposite

numbers said our stuff is world beating. Over the years, our clients

have wanted to create an impact, not just produce information films.

People in Milan were astounded by the seat-belts commercial. The amount

of dramatic, risk-taking stuff is increasing.’

The change in government has influenced the creative, says Fisher: ’This

administration is willing to take risks and do things differently.’

Not everyone agrees. Davis says: ’The current government is paying

greater attention to social values, which could lead to less


Marketing background

Most who have dealt with Fisher rate her highly. She was previously a

marketer at Holsten and Courage before occupying the role of managing

director at CLT UK Radio Sales.

Fisher says the challenges are to build closer links with two government

bodies, the Health Education Authority (HEA) and National Savings, which

have planned campaigns and bought media outside the COI. She says a

pooling of resources would bring more savings. Earlier this month,

ministers transferred Department of Health ads from the HEA to the COI.

It will focus on getting maximum value for taxpayers’ money.

As one agency source says: ’The COI style is to avoid doing foolish

things with public money. It pushes for best practice and is a good

defender of creative advertising.’

While the contention is clearly that the government is the right side of

the propaganda line, this is a debate that will continue. For the

balance to be maintained, the COI has to be strong and its position as a

buffer will have to be protected.


Spend through the COI (all media)

1994-95   1995-96   1996-97   1997-98   1998-99

pounds    pounds    pounds    pounds    pounds

112.4m    125.8m    125.9m    110.7m    173.4m

Spend through the COI (advertising only)

1994-95   1995-96   1996-97   1997-98   1998-99

pounds    pounds    pounds    pounds    pounds

55.2m     63.7m     69.4m     59m       105.5m

Source: COI


Spend by department through the COI (all media)


DTI                                         pounds 20.5m

Education and Employment                    pounds 25.7m

Environment, Transport and the Regions      pounds 10.7m

FCO                                          pounds 0.7m

Health                                      pounds 12.3m

Home Office                                    pounds 4m

Inland Revenue                               pounds 9.1m

Ministry of Defence                         pounds 35.6m

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority      pounds 6.2m

Social Security                                pounds 9m

Welsh Office                                   pounds 2m

Other                                       pounds 37.5m

Source: COI


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