Undertaking Ulster

The governmental £6m Northern Ireland advertising roster is open to tender. Unlike other government campaigns, those in the province centre around the political domain, and many agencies may baulk at the prospect of targeting a nation at once divided yet united by a strong culture.

Advertising has always played a crucial role in the battle against the terrorists’ bombs and bullets in Northern Ireland. But as the Government begins the five-yearly review of its £6m ad roster (MW November 4), the appointed agencies and the work they produce are likely to reflect the dawning of a new era in the province.

Traditionally, governmental advertising in Northern Ireland mirrors the political landscape and the violence the province has suffered. The work that ad agencies produce for the Government extends past the traditional public service campaigns seen on the mainland to shocking portrayals of the horror of war, publicising peace and encouraging stability.

In 1994, at the time of the first ceasefire, McCann-Erickson Belfast had been creating fierce anti-terrorism campaigns for the Northern Ireland Office for seven years. But the ceasefire demanded a different strategy and the agency was briefed to encourage mutual understanding and respect among the province’s warring factions.

A year later, at the height of Northern Ireland’s hopes for peace, McCann launched a campaign to stabilise opinion and encourage a positive mood.

But by February 1996 the return to violence, sparked by the bomb at Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands, plunged the province back into war. The anti-terrorism ads were resurrected and they ran in conjunction with peace and security work.

This twin advertising strategy lasted until the Good Friday Agreement, struck in April 1998. There has been no anti-terrorism advertising since then.

McCann-Erickson Belfast chief executive David Lyle says: “There is no anti-terrorism message at the moment because the {political} situation is too uncertain,” although the agency went on to create the “Yes vote” campaign for the peace deal referendum in May last year.

Northern Ireland information service spokesman Frank Woods says there are no plans to run future anti-terrorism or peace and security advertising.

The Northern Ireland Office’s anti-terrorism and peace promotion campaigns sit alongside those from other government departments, including health, environment and agriculture, as well as local training and development agencies.

The £6m-worth of creative advertising and media buying contracts are due to begin in January 2000. If the peace talks deadlock is broken, the newly appointed agencies will find themselves creating campaigns under a new executive and newly devolved institutions.

The proposals for administering the province under the new executive include increasing the number of government departments from six to ten, reorganising the current structure into smaller departments.

For the ten or so advertising agencies that are appointed to the roster, this means there will be more clients to deal with. There is no central advertising co-ordinating body, such as the Central Office of Information in London.

The Belfast-based Government Purchasing Agency (GPA) is handling the review. It offers advice to departments, access to existing contractors and provides new contractual services, but it does not administer campaigns. Each department is responsible for its own campaigns.

This can create problems, according to Adrian McClure, senior creative of Belfast agency September-McConnell, which has created government road safety and energy efficiency campaigns.

“Traditionally, few marketing-literate people have been present on the other side of the table. Some senior civil servants approach a campaign the same way they would requisition paper clips,” says McClure.

COI-style body

He says there is “wishful thinking” within the Northern Irish advertising industry that a COI-style co-ordinating body for advertising and marketing will be set up under the new administration.

“There is talk of an overhaul. Agencies are pushing for more structure to briefings and presentations, with guidelines agreed in advance, and changes to the way pitches are conducted,” says McClure.

Apart from anything else, he says, it would improve the quality of the work. He believes at present governmental budgets are not put to their best use because of a lack of understanding between the agency and the department involved.

But Northern Ireland Information Service head of co-ordination and planning Frank Woods says he is not aware of any plans for a central advertising or marketing body under the new administration.

He adds: “Obviously some things need to be worked out, but it is likely the new departments would draw on the list {of agencies} selected by the GPA, in Belfast.”

McCann’s Lyle says devolution could trigger a battle between ministers for advertising budgets.

Lyle also thinks a COI-type set-up might not translate easily to Northern Ireland because, come devolution, different political parties will be in charge of different departments, which might make departmental – rather than central – control the easier option.

But Lyle thinks a move towards communal pricing is likely – instead of agencies negotiating fees with each department it works for.

A spokesman for the GPA says the new administration could mean more advertising work: “Potentially, if ten departments are running campaigns instead of six, the amount of advertising could increase. But there will be the same amount of money so campaigns may be a bit smaller.”

However, the £6m budget devoted to governmental campaigns is fairly substantial, in part because the ads must have maximum exposure at expensive peaktime.

“The advertising is devised to help bring the country back from disaster. It is realistic, brutal stuff designed to make you think. It is advertising with clout,” says the GPA spokesman.

The tender process is, of course, open to agencies throughout the European Union. A spokesman says: “It is perfectly conceivable to carry out advertising from another part of the world, but a more remote supplier would need an in-depth knowledge of the region.”

Edinburgh-based agency The Leith has held the Northern Ireland Tourist Board account under its one agency arm for two years.

Leith managing director John Rowley says there are similarities between Scotland and Northern Ireland: “Both are small countries with nationalistic views and a political divide – albeit to a far lesser degree in Scotland. We are also used to squeezing as much out of a budget as possible.”

He adds: “We are conscious of issues of national and cultural identity, even down to the use of colour,” a point which has not always been picked up by agencies outside the province. Mobile phone operator Orange and its London agency WCRS and Mediapolis came under attack for using the strapline “The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Orange” in Northern Ireland.

Media buying

Lyle agrees that Northern Ireland’s ever-changing tensions would be difficult for an agency outside the province to get to grips with.

“The media market here is a minefield. It would be enough to send a London agency mad. People read particular newspapers according to their religion, on both a local and national level. The normal rules of media buying simply don’t apply,” says Lyle.

Government advertising from England does run in Northern Ireland, sometimes with a regional voiceover. Conversely, the Department of Environment has been pre-testing a campaign in Northern Ireland through McCann aimed at people driving under the influence of drugs.

The fearsome images and nightmarish subjects tackled by the governmental ads in Northern Ireland have become an integral part of the country’s bid for peace and reconciliation. If the peace process is successful, the agencies could be in the unusual position of welcoming more mundane work.

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