Has Francis ‘Jerrycan’ Maude committed an even bigger blunder with “Son of COI”?

April 2, 2012

Cabinet Office minister Francis “Jerrycan” Maude’s legendary communications skills were on full display last week, with a gaffe that caused the Government its worst wobble since the election.

Let’s hope this is not an omen. Maude is, among other responsibilities, the minister in charge of direct government communications. Meaning: he has been the prime mover behind the dissolution of the Central Office of Information, which officially closed on March 29th, and the fashioning of its hypoglycaemic successor, the Government Communications Centre.

It’s too early to write off “Son of COI” as another one of Maude’s blunders – yet. Only time, and ramped-up expenditure in anticipation of the next general election, will give a definitive answer on that. Nevertheless, it is clear the new organisation will face formidable challenges right from the start.

No one, including COI insiders, can take serious exception to Maude’s fundamental critique of the 66-year old institution: that it was spending far too much (not least on itself) and needed to be cut down to size.

What has incensed critics is the savage severity of the resultant pruning, and the furtive ideological makeover accompanying it.

Let’s take a helicopter view of what has happened.

The new GCC team will be expected to carry out all the essential tasks of its predecessor at the COI. That is to say, it will coordinate Whitehall departmental campaigns from the centre, evaluate them, foster cooperation between these departments, media plan and buy for them and monitor the media results.

The COI once boasted a team of over 700 to accomplish these tasks; even towards the end, and after savage cuts, it could still muster a headcount of 400. The GCC, by contrast, currently has a full complement heading towards 150.

That figure, small though it is, does not fully reflect the painful new reality. Nearly half of the new team is made up of already existing communications (ie PR) staff  extracted from the departments of state. They are not (it almost goes without saying) marcoms experts and would not have formed a part of the COI’s remit. So the marcoms element of the team is lean indeed.

Moving on, the integration of comms and marcoms might seem no bad idea. And in principle it is not. Many would argue that PR people have grasped the potential – and limitations – of digital media, particularly the so-called social graph, far better than those working in traditional brand management.

That should not blind us to the dangers, however. Particularly those inherent in a merger where comms has come out top.

Significant in this respect is the Government’s decision to appoint Jenny Grey as permanent executive director (CEO) of the GCC, in January. By all accounts, Grey is a popular and competent executive, but she has zero experience of traditional private sector marcoms. Previously she was director of policy and communications for No 10 and the Cabinet Office (responsibilities she retains as part of her new role). Before joining the civil service in 2008 she worked for the Audit Commission, Cancer Research and the NHS. Her career began in agency PR.

In appointing Grey, the Government went back on its previous commitment to pick a marketer from the private sector. Grey is no doubt a popular ‘insider’ choice. Clearly, she is well liked in the Cabinet Office. And the departments of state are unlikely to have objected either, inasmuch as one of their own – a civil servant – will now be running the co-ordinating shop.

But the decision does leave you wondering who will be qualified to do business with the outside world: private sector contractors – marcoms agencies prime among them.

The answer to this question might, in other circumstances, have been Grey’s deputy, Wendy Proctor. Proctor had plenty of ad agency experience before she became client services director at the Department of Health. But in her new role as deputy director, Cabinet Office shared communications service, she will have her work cut out managing the undermanned “shared delivery” pooling system that ministers to the needs of the 7 government department “hubs” set up as part of the administrative reform programme.

These “hubs” are themselves experimental and rather controversial. It remains to be seen how well they will work in aggregating and filtering departmental work.

So the GCC will be a much smaller, more inward-looking creature than its predecessor. It will have a very steep learning curve. Its mindset will be that of the comms department and, indeed, of government ministers. It will favour short, sharp, “messages”, designed to curry favour with the Daily Mail and opinion polls over long-term strategic programmes whose true value may not become apparent until well after the next general election.

Even it were interested in some new equivalent of DrinkDrive or Change4Life, where nowadays would it find the resources to properly evaluate such programmes?

Marcoms, once the COI fairytale princess, has ended up being Cinderella at the GCC.

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.

Swingeing COI job cuts mean the end of the road for state-bankrolled “nudge”

August 4, 2010

It’s difficult not to sympathise with Mark Lund, chief executive of COI, as he contemplates the grim future facing his department.

When I interviewed him for Marketing Week last year, it was clear he accepted that substantial cuts were on the way. But even he, hands newly on the helm of one of the UK’s largest advertisers, can have little dreamt that, rather than circumnavigating a few reefs, he and his crew were going to be driven onto the rocks by a team of professional wreckers (aka Francis Maude and the Cabinet Office).

“Decimation” does not do justice to the future of the COI. Its fate is four times worse than that, with 40% of its staff expected to lose their jobs. That’s 287 people out of 737. Everyone is going into consultation, and that includes Lund himself.

He may not lose his job, but he might well wish he had done. For what is the COI’s role likely to be, post “restructuring”? It will, of course, continue to be a significant media buyer and specialist marketing services consultancy by appointment to Her Majesty’s departments of state. But gone, to all intents and purposes, is the higher strategic mission of reforming society through a lavishly-funded behavioural economics programme (or “nudge,” to put it in the vernacular). The budgets have simply vanished. And so, soon, will the people capable of managing them.

Might they ever come back? If they do, Maude’s axe-wielding makes it clear it won’t be any time soon. This is the really bad news for COI roster agencies, who may have interpreted the draconian restrictions imposed earlier this year as merely a temporary measure, to be relaxed once the economy ticks up. Maude, minister of the Cabinet Office, has made it abundantly clear that this Government is not an adherent of taxpayer-sponsored “nudge”. The days of “wasteful and unnecessary spend on marketing and advertising” and “spending millions of pounds on expensive projects are over,” he tells us.

Over, that is, until the next general election campaign in about four years’ time, when the Government will suddenly find the urge to trumpet all its achievements. But COI culture will have been so traumatised, and its skills so bled, that I doubt it will be up to the challenge by then. The surge, when it comes, is more likely to emanate from the marcoms teams within the departments of state that contract themselves to the COI. Richly ironic if so, because these self-same teams have – for the past ten years – fought an intermittent and losing battle with the COI over mastery of the budgets.

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