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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.

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Do scary anti-smoking ads really work?

March 19, 2012

The last time the Department of Health tried to put the frighteners on smokers with a television advertising campaign, it got into trouble with the Advertising Standards Authority.

Apparently, this 2009 ad was much too scary for children. And could, in the future, be screened only after 7.30 in the evening:

That scary. Makes you wonder what the ASA would think of the following campaign, which has just broken in the United States:

Gruesome is the word that comes to mind. Enough to give small children nightmares for months, if not years, to come. It’s just one execution from a $54m (about £35m) multimedia campaign launched by US government agency Centers for Disease Control. “Really goes for the trachea”, as one US journalist put it; and the other ads are hardly less “gripping”.

But do shock-tactics actually work, faced with a tobacco industry which still wields a $10bn annual marketing budget?

Surprisingly, perhaps, CDC director Thomas Frieden admits that he was once a sceptic himself, while serving as commissioner of the New York Health Department. He has since changed his views in the light of research indicating success is positively correlated to a “dose-related strategy”. In other words, the more grand guignol horror you are subjected to, the more you are likely to give up the weed.

As it happens, Frieden’s successor at the NYHD shows none of the ASA’s squeamishness about inflicting psychic damage on young viewers. “I absolutely think it’s okay for an eight-year-old to be watching messages that prevent that child from becoming a smoker, even if it’s something that the parent and the child find disturbing,” Dr Tom Farley tells CBS.

Who, I wonder, has got it right here?


Brands get the better deal out of alcohol responsibility

March 15, 2011
The 6 health public interest organisations which abruptly withdrew from the government’s “responsibility deal” on alcohol appear to have thought they were pulling the rug from under health secretary Andrew Lansley’s love-in with industry. That’s certainly the implication of the timing of their announcement, which came 24 hours before Lansley unveiled pledges by 170 brands to support responsible drinking, eating, behaviour at work and in the home.

If that was their intention, they are sorely deceived; at least, in the short term. These public interest groups comprise sober-minded people: The Royal College of Physicians, the British Liver Trust, the British Association for the Study of the Liver, the Institute of Alcohol Studies, the British Medical Association and Alcohol Concern. Yet they have acted like children, throwing their toys out of the pram because they cannot get what they want.

Worse, the gesture politics have actually back-fired. They have left Lansley’s new brand buddies looking adult, mature, responsible (albeit ever so slightly smug). Achieving clear unit labelling on more than 80% per cent of alcoholic drinks by 2013 may seem a fairly nugatory achievement in the wider public health battle against binge drinking and youthful alcoholism. But at least it’s a positive headline.

Whereas, the strategy of the breakaway NGOs is simply dumbfounding. Either they were extremely naive, or extremely cynical, in subscribing to the “responsibility deal” in the first place. Naive if they thought Lansley was going to do anything other than sign a concordat with industry – in lieu of (as he himself expresses it) expensive and time-consuming legislative restrictions. Or cynical, if they knowingly signed up for a project in which they had no confidence, merely to scupper it at a politically sensitive moment.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, formerly president of the Royal College of Physicians – and one of the defectors’ most articulate spokesmen – put his finger on their dilemma nearly 6 months ago. He signed up to the alcohol responsibility deal network even though he was sceptical of a “meaningful convergence between the interests of the industry and public health, since the priority of the drinks industry was to make money for shareholders, while public health demanded a cut in consumption… On alcohol, there is undoubtedly a need for regulation on price, availability and marketing – and there is a risk that discussions will be deflected away from regulation that is likely to be effective but would affect sales.”

In fact, Lansley had made it clear right from the start that he wanted a voluntary, not a regulatory, approach; and that the pricing of alcohol as a regulatory consumption mechanism was not part of the deal’s terms of reference.

Quizzed yesterday on why the 6 had pulled out, Gilmore observed: “It is not acceptable for the drinks industry to drive the pace and direction that […] public health policy takes.”

That may seem like pique (and indeed it is), but it shrewdly hints at a wider problem facing Lansley and the Department of Health. In the short term, cosying up to industry during these times of austerity might seem a smart and pragmatic thing to do. In the longer run, however, the DoH cannot afford to alienate its core constituency, the medical profession.

As one industry insider put it: “The health lobby is now screaming from the sidelines with placards on its chest. That doesn’t serve the public health interest; and it doesn’t serve ours, either. To paraphrase President Johnson, we’d rather have them inside the tent than outside it.”


VAT reverse means healthy Innocent smoothies must remain a guilty pleasure

November 23, 2010

“It’s crazy,” says Innocent chief executive Richard Reed. “This ruling is definitely not in the interests of the nation’s health. It’s absurd that smoothies, which contain two portions of fruit and help people live more heathily are subject to VAT when junk food like burgers, chips and doughnuts are sold tax free.”

Yep, Richard. Not many of us will disagree with you there – unless of course we work for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) or the Treasury, which is slavishly serves.

Reed’s anguish and ire stem from a three-year legal wrangle over whether Innocent – and its customers – should continue to pay 17.5% VAT on its smoothie products, which it has just lost.

Only the healthy one on the left is subject to VAT

Reed chooses to classify smoothies as “liquified fruit salad.” It’s an oddity of our tax rules that, while people in this country need pay no VAT on “essential foods” such as the aforementioned burgers, “luxuries”, such as smoothies, are not exempt. But even if smoothies are categorised as a “beverage” (which, in all honesty, they more commonly are), Reed would still be in trouble with the tax authorities. Beverages – which for tax purposes are defined as “liquid commonly consumed to increase bodily liquid levels, to slake thirst, to fortify or to give pleasure” – are non-exempt. Unless they happen to be milk, tea or hot chocolate.

Where’s the fairness in that you, like Reed, might ask? Fairness, sadly, is not in the rule-book of an institution which joyfully plunders our just earnings, without so much as an apology when it is caught in the act. Its instinctive reaction on those rare occasions when it suffers a legal reverse is to vindictively rewrite the law in its own favour – lest future appellants succeed in pulling the same stroke.

This, apparently, is how the current eccentric definition of exempt and non-exempt beverages came about in the first place. It dates to a tax tribunal case in 1993, when HMRC (then Customs and Excise) was thwarted in its attempt to impose VAT on slimming aid Bio-Light.

Someone really should push Health Secretary Andrew Lansley a little harder. It’s time this government did more joined-up thinking on food policy, and Lansley leaning on George Osborne at the Treasury is where they should start. There is an inherent contradiction in the DoH’s position. On the one hand, it seems to expect the food industry to pour infinite resource into propagating healthy eating. And on the other, it lifts not a finger to criticise another department of state when it actively undermines that goal by reinforcing an out-of-date and absurd tax regime, with a view to screwing every last penny out of the consumer.


Food Standards Agency to be shorn of powers – it’s official

July 20, 2010

Some enlightenment on the vexed future of the Food Standards Agency has just come my way. It will stay, but be shorn of many of its powers. Here’s today’s ministerial statement on the subject:

Food Standards Agency in England. The Government recognises the important role of the Food Standards Agency in England, which will continue to be responsible for food safety. The Food Standards Agency will remain a non-ministerial department reporting to Parliament through Health ministers.

In England, nutrition policy will become a responsibility of the Secretary of State for Health. Food labelling and food composition policy, where not related to food safety, will become a responsibility of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

In effect, these changes will disembowel the FSA. Expect substantial cuts in its £135m annual budget and its 2,000-strong staff.


Abolition of FSA will give food industry more shout

July 12, 2010

Come on, we all knew a Tory government was going to abolish the FSA. It’s just we got the wrong one in our sights. How devious of them to lead us up the garden path like that!

While the incompetent Financial Services Authority (a watchdog steeped up to its dewlaps in responsibility for the banking crisis) has got off lightly with a root-and-branch reform instead of threatened abolition, the other FSA, the Food Standards Agency, which was threatened with root-and-branch reform but not abolition, is the one that is actually going to get the chop. Health secretary Andrew Lansley, we are told, will shortly announce that the organisation set up in 2000 in the wake of the BSE crisis will have its regulatory remit (safety and hygiene in the food chain) devolved to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and its responsibilities for advising on public health and diet (primarily the obesity debate) given to the Department of Health (DoH).

The immediate aim is to save about £1bn by breaking up a department with 2,000 people and a budget of £135m. However, commentators on both sides of the food divide have been quick to discern a not-very-hidden ideological agenda.

Nannyism: Out of fashion

With one stroke, Lansley has struck a lethal blow at the heart of nannyism. Even the food industry seems a little taken aback by the suddenness of the blow. And yet it is entirely consistent with Lansley’s promise – implicit in his decision last week to give industry a bigger role in Change4Life – to substitute “nudge” (persuasive technique) for cumbersome and expensive legislative coercion.

A happy by-product of this policy, so far as the food, soft drinks and alcohol companies are concerned, is that it puts them more firmly in the driving seat. We will hear no more of “traffic lights”, the simplistic but consumer-friendly food labelling system which the FSA has espoused with such zeal, much to the annoyance of Big Food. Similarly, I imagine the threat of a TV advertising watershed imposed on certain food and alcohol categories is definitively a thing of the past; and the medical caucus will – for now – be more hesitant about calling for an outright ban on the consumption of alcohol.

Critics of Lansley’s plan will no doubt point to the conflict of interest inherent in placing regulatory control within a department, Defra, which is also responsible for the supply side. One of the reasons for the FSA’s foundation as an independent body was the perceived inadequacy of MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) – Defra’s predecessor – in dealing with the BSE crisis, thanks to its cosiness with farmers. But that’s one for the critics. For the food and alcohol sectors, the FSA’s abolition marks a famous victory, not least in the communications war.

UPDATE: Some furious back-pedalling by Andrew Lansley’s special adviser has led to the following terse statement being issued on the DoH website this afternoon: “No decision has been taken over the Food Standards Agency (FSA). All Arms Length Bodies will be subject to a review.” Meaning? The electric chair will have to wait, but it’s definitely (or should that be indefinitely?) Death Row for the FSA. Emasculation by innuendo. NICE next?


Obama’s take on Change4Life

November 30, 2009

Sian Jarvis, director general of communications at the Department of Health, produced a confidently upbeat report on the Government’s showpiece healthcare communications policy, Change4Life, at a recent Advertising Association sponsored conference, Food Advertising: Time for a Healthy Debate.

The £75m three-year anti-obesity campaign, launched in January this year, is now about to move into its next phase, targeting adults of 45 and above.

As Jarvis herself confessed, the campaign (which is handled by M&C Saatchi) was the brief from hell. A nightmare of political correctness, it had to avoid a patronising, admonitory tone and persuade rather than bludgeon. Despite the fact it is all about health, there could be no mention of sport and fitness (which are middle-class connotations, and therefore not “inclusive”). All in all, it was a miracle that those luminous, animated little men and women made it onto our television screens at all.

Despite this unpromising start, Jarvis was able to report that the campaign has, in ten months, signed up 170 partners and achieved high ratings on most awareness/satisfaction indices.

Probably the biggest endorsement, however, is the fact that the Change4Life blueprint is now being actively considered for a US roll-out. Health secretary Andy Burnham was recently in the White House giving President Barack Obama’s team a briefing on the whys and wherefores. Do expect a US-version of Change4Life in the not-too-distant future. Don’t expect the US taxpayer to be nearly as generous as our own. That would be a “socialist” solution and therefore politically unacceptable in the Land of the Free. Most likely, a very large begging bowl will be sent around industry.

More on Change4Life, and other facets of the conference, in my Marketing Week column this week.


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