Chris Smith, the former culture minister who this week takes up his new role of advertising regulator-in-chief, obviously has access to 10 Downing Street. His longstanding friend James Purnell has been appointed as culture secretary by the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, days after Smith sent the incoming PM a note urging him to make the appointment. This is the sort of influence in the corridors of Whitehall that the advertising industry, under siege from increasing threats of regulation, is likely to welcome.
In his first interview as chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), Lord Smith promises to make the case for advertising to his political peers and future-proof self-regulation.
It is time, then, for a voluble rebuttal of those who blame advertising for the nation’s rising obesity, binge drinking and other social ills. He takes up his post this week as regulations against “junk food” advertising to children comes into force.
“My concern is that taking a stick to advertising is seen as a whole solution to social problems rather than a tiny bit of the solution. I have many friends on all sides of the political spectrum and making the case to government is something I am more than happy to join with the industry in doing,” he says.
Smith is also certain that in the Brown era the Labour Government is unlikely to force further advertising sanctions. “It is fair to say that in his early years as Chancellor, Gordon was not clear about the value of the creative sector to the economy. But he certainly gets the plot about the importance of the creative sector, of which advertising is a very important part,” he says. The unshakably polite Smith plays down his well-documented clash with Brown over child benefit policy while serving as social security spokesman in Opposition.
“It was a disagreement of the past, well in the past. I persuaded Gordon to pour lots of extra money into arts and culture when I was the culture secretary and have been in touch with him since. He will be very good news for the creative sector overall,” he says.
The significance of the creative sector is something the former MP for Islington knows a bit about. One of the few politicians with a genuine interest in the arts, he completed a PhD at Cambridge on Wordsworth and Coleridge.
His associates say that neither his successor Tessa Jowell nor newly-appointed Purnell are cultural aficionados to quite the same degree.
Ministry of fun
In 1997, Smith headed the then Department of National Heritage and immediately set about getting rid of the “ministry of fun and free tickets” tag. He set up a task force on the economic potential of the creative industries and launched the Creative Industries Mapping Document to signal its importance to the British economy and subsequently set up the Creative Industries Task Force, as part of the “Cool Britannia” strategy of rebranding the UK as a dynamic, creative-edge economy.
“I absolutely detest the Cool Britannia phrase,” stresses the otherwise mild-mannered politician rather loudly. “I have always thought of it as being a rather shallow way of describing the enormous importance that creativity has to the UK economy. I hated it.” Smith says that the phrase was coined by a journalist and used by his Tory predecessor Virginia Bottomley long before Tony Blair’s accession to Number 10.
Sources suggest that it was in fact Bottomley who was the headhunter used by the ASA to replace the “less visible” Lord Borrie who stood down at the end of June. The Smith appointment was made by the Advertising Standards Board of Finance (Asbof) , and its broadcast equivalent, Asbof chairman Winston Fletcher is said to have a “penchant for a lord to head the ASA”. Indeed, only one non-lord has ever chaired the ASA – Sir Timothy Raison, who was at the helm between 1990 and 1995.
So does that make Lord Smith an “obviously boring choice” as one critic puts it? The majority of advertisers disagree. They point out that he not only has the intellectual ability to engage with the policymakers over protecting advertising freedom, but also the political expertise to communicate the ASA’s role as an effective and trustworthy regulator to consumers.
This is a brief that Smith is keen to share with Advertising Association chief executive Baroness Peta Buscombe, a Tory peer. “It is rather good that we have two peers from both sides of the House of Lords taking senior roles within the field of advertising. The industry can now look forward to having access to politicians across the political spectrum,” he says, while outlining his hopes of raising the profile of the ASA.
The new chairman is planning to launch an “education programme” to the public to tell the ASA story. “I am thinking about something that enables people to have a rather deeper view of what the ASA is about and how self-regulation works,” he explains.
Smith says he is also keen that the ASA takes part in the wider debate on the “changing pattern of advertising”, with digital and the internet presenting deep challenges for the industry. He refuses to be drawn on specific plans about any sort of holistic regulatory framework to include digital in the ASA’s remit.
Smith adds that advertising has had to face up to a changing cultural scene where political correctness sometimes appears to take centre stage. In his view, the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre’s banning of the resurrected 1960s “Go to work on an egg” campaign featuring Tony Hancock would not have happened if it had been presented to the ASA Council. “I would have allowed the ad to go on air,” he says.
However, he views the banned Trident chewing gum ad that received complaints over racist stereotyping of the over-excited Jamaican character as an example of the ASA recognising a “genuine issue” of what can cause both unhappiness and offence.
Smith’s gentle demeanour and low-profile style make him a good fit for running an organisation with a duty to declare and uphold high standards in advertising. But his political background suggests that he might well be up for much more robust toil.
He was one of the most high-profile casualties of the reshuffle that followed the 2001 election. He was removed from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport after falling out of favour with Number 10 following the Camelot fat cats debacle (exclusively revealed by Marketing Week), when he painted the Lottery bosses as greedy “fat cats”. And it was under his watch that the calamity of the Millennium Dome and Wembley Stadium happened.
Smith refuses to shoulder the blame for the Dome folly and adds: “I argued against the Dome at the outset and was just the banker. I chaired the Millennium Commission and provided the money, but the Commission did not decide what happened inside the Dome. The problem with the Dome was that it was a building without a content and I have now been proved right.” On the issue over the collapse of plans to rebuild Wembley Stadium in 2001, he says: “I was always extremely sceptical about the Football Association’s claim that it could be used for athletics and football. Time has proved that assessment right as well.”
He then goes on to list his successful legacy including restoring free admissions to museums and galleries and securing best-ever increased funding for arts and sports.
His other achievements include championing the cause of AIDS and HIV. In 2003 Smith first revealed that he had been HIV positive for 17 years. Never known to dodge questions about his personal life, he adds that he has been with his partner Dorian Jabri, a former communications officer at the Teacher Training Agency, since the late 1980s. Jabri, he says, was responsible for the “No one forgets a good teacher” ad in the 1990s.
“I took the decision to come out and be open about my personal life so that I could get on with the business of being an MP. I have always been open and honest about it.”
Always honest and open maybe, but combative in his approach he has scarcely been. The Mr Nice Guy of politics, not known to have laid claim to the high offices of the state, is hoping to win the hearts and minds of both the politicians and the public with his amiable approach.