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Advertising industry sheds crocodile tears over Steve Hilton’s departure

March 6, 2012

Few in the ad industry will lament the departure of Steve “Yoda” Hilton, David Cameron’s director of strategy. Indeed, such is the relief that he is going, some would willingly pack the diminutive “blue-sky” thinker’s bags, as he contemplates a year’s ‘sabbatical’ with his family in California. Politically speaking, California is the sunny side of Siberia.

Why good riddance? Well, the word that best sums up Hilton’s relationship with the ad industry is “renegade”.

Although Hilton’s association with Cameron and the Tory party predates the 1992 election campaign, most of his subsequent years were spent in the service of advertising, the career that actually earned him a living. Hilton quickly hooked up with Maurice Saatchi, who professed to see in young Steve a kind of son: “No one reminds me as much of me when young as Steve”, he is reputed to have said. And the admiration was mutual. Steve dutifully followed Maurice from Saatchi & Saatchi to breakaway M&C Saatchi as a kind of intellectual bag-carrier. Hilton’s ability to think “out of the box” or perhaps more accurately, “to get out of his box”, soon became apparent with his contribution to the 1997 election campaign. The “Demon Eyes” poster was certainly visually arresting and highly memorable, but trying to make the then-saintly Tony Blair into the Devil Incarnate probably did more to win votes for Labour than for the party originating it. This episode would seem to underline an abiding truth about Hilton’s career: that high intelligence and original thinking are no guarantee of common sense.

Never mind. After 13 years of hard Labour, which saw the 2002 ban on cigarette advertising followed in 2007 by severe TV restrictions on foods high in fat, salt and sugar, and much muttering about out-of-control drinks advertising, the ad industry seemed to have every reason to pop the corks when it emerged that one of their own was to become the man officially in charge of David Cameron’s brain.

How wrong they all were. Had they done their homework more carefully they would have found our man wasn’t the pragmatic trimmer everyone hoped he might be. A Steve Hilton blog post from as early as 2004, entitled “Will sexual marketing be the next consumer backlash?”, espoused some rather unfashionable, untraditionalist opinions on the matter of “the relentless drive by big businesses to sexualise small children, ageing them prematurely in the process”, while denouncing the “sexual predators of the advertising industry” for good measure.

Ring a bell? “The Bailey Report”, says one insider, “Appears to have taken its brief directly from Steve Hilton’s old blog.” Too right, and laudable though the principles informing Reg Bailey’s report are, what a nightmare they have proved to implement. The regulators have gone into puritanical overdrive, with a zeal reminiscent of the Salem witch trials. Practically any female flesh exposed in a public place (ie, on posters) is now regarded as a potential contaminant of young minds – as the recent case of the Advertising Standards Authority versus Marks & Spencer only too vividly reminded us.

However, the Bailey Report and its aftermath are a mooncast shadow when compared with Hilton’s other bequest to the ad industry. Fairly or not, Hilton’s blue-sky thinking is blamed for the ultimate destruction of the Central Office of Information. For which read a £540m-a-year ad industry gravy-train.

Pinning the blame on a single person for what may yet turn out to be a government-wide communications disaster zone might seem a little harsh. After all, there are plenty of available villains – if that’s what they are – from Francis Maude to half the cabinet office. And yet the suspicion lingers that Hilton somehow gave Maude the intellectual confidence to take an axe to the venerable institution in the first place, with his bizarre proposal for a spare and minimalist Ad Council to displace the heavily bureaucratic COI.

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Small-minded policy sets agenda for Big Society demands on advertising industry

November 10, 2010

No one could make it up. You’re a new government pledged to introduce sweeping efficiencies to the way Whitehall is run. One of your first moves is to seek out an experienced taskforce leader universally admired for his managerial track-record. Instead, you pick Ian Watmore – a technocrat whose most recent achievement has been an inglorious stint as ceo of the Football Association (itself probably the most dysfunctional governing body known to man). And, just to rub everyone’s nose in it – especially the many about to receive their P45s – you award him a prime minister’s salary of £142,500.

Watmore is in day-to-day charge of the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Unit, and works closely with Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude and Treasury minister Danny Alexander to ensure there is a coordinated approach to tackling waste in government departments. This week it launched its plans for (inter alia) a new model government advertising programme that will involve  a “payment by results model, using government channels, and a US-style Ad Council”.

Perhaps because the wording is cryptic to the point of ambiguity, there is enough there to offend just about anyone who might be instrumental in making the policy succeed. Payment by results, for example, could well be code for no fee upfront to any agency involved in government marcoms; at very least it suggests arduous negotiation over how best to evaluate the tricky issue of behavioural change.

Then again, what exactly are “government channels”, and what sort of substitute are they for the commercial media they must to some extent supplant? The merest suggestion that the BBC is a “government channel” would provoke a furious debate over its independence. ITV wouldn’t be too chuffed either, at the prospect of all that lost revenue. But if not the BBC, then what else could this mysterious phrase encompass? Hospital and doctors’ waiting rooms, perhaps – although they’re not exactly the backbone of a national media strategy.

But the pièce de resistance is surely the “Ad Council” idea, which shows a frightening naivety about the very nature of advertising. If the Council is supposed to be a low-cost replacement vehicle for the Central Office of Information, then Watmore and his ministerial chums should think again. Something which was set up in 1941 in the heated aftermath of Pearl Harbour (highlight: the Smokey Bear campaign, devised to alert Americans to the dangers of the Japanese deliberately starting forest fires by shelling the US coastline) is hardly an appropriate model for today’s more sophisticated communications needs. The Ad Council lingers on, but as a charity not a government body – still less one that delivers government advertising.

Industry reaction to the proposals has been a barely suppressed anger. And for several good reasons. First, although the government is making great play of consulting the industry, the feeling is that this consultation is merely lip-service; the reality is an ideological blueprint being imposed from above, to which industry must accede. Secondly, there is exasperation at the idea of the advertising and communications business being expected to subsidise government messages; isn’t it doing enough already with such initiatives as Business4Life and “Why let good times go bad”? Thirdly, there is concern that the government’s Big Ask will suck the life out of genuine pro bono work for charities – performed by agencies already teetering on the edge of compassion-fatigue.

UPDATE 2/12/10. Someone seems to have persuaded Francis Maude that abolishing the COI and substituting a pro-bono US-style Ad Council would be a daft idea. At any rate, the rhetoric has been toned down. There’s no more talk of ‘abolition’, simply scaling down its operations and where possible devolving them to industry partnerships.


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