Why cutting ad budgets will come back to bite Boris

Newly-elected London mayor Boris Johnsons pledge to slash his predecessors advertising budget to pay for more community police on public transport focuses attention once more on advertising effectiveness.

One of Boris Johnson’s first acts as Mayor of London has been to slash the ad budgets of the GLA and Transport for London. But some campaigns under Ken Livingstone, such as those on teen road safety and tackling gun crime, fulfilled important social functions, says David Benady

Newly-elected London mayor Boris Johnson’s pledge to slash his predecessor’s advertising budget to pay for more community police on public transport focuses attention once more on advertising effectiveness.

One of Johnson’s few substantive pledges in his campaign to unseat Labour mayor Ken Livingstone was to slash advertising and publicity spending by the Greater London Authority and Transport for London to fund extra police.

The implication is clear. Advertising is poor value for money, an exercise in ego-building by the mayor, and the cash is better spent on frontline services. Others argue that advertising is a frontline service and is vital in getting people to report crime, recycle their rubbish, try alternative forms of transport or take care on the roads.

Johnson’s manifesto commitments are clear. He will hire an extra 440 police community support officers at an estimated cost of £16.5m, paid for by cutting Transport for London’s advertising budget and its press office. TfL’s planned “customer information budget” is £63.2m; the £16.5m will be taken from this.

The mayor also promises to use funds earmarked for GLA advertising and press officers to pay for 50 British Transport Police, who will patrol the worst stations in outer London. Paying for the 50 extra transport cops will mean all but eliminating GLA’s estimated £3.5m advertising budget, including campaigns run by the Metropolitan Police. In another move, Johnson will use money saved from Livingstone’s press ­officers to open two rape crisis centres.

This promises to be a serious marketing massacre, making deep cuts into GLA’s and TfL’s ad spend. There will be barely a press officer left. Not one could be found either at GLA or TfL to comment for this article.

And given that Johnson’s mayoralty is seen as a blueprint for a possible Conservative election victory in 2009, it sets a worrying precedent for ad and media agencies on the Government’s COI roster. The Labour Government has spent almost £1.5bn on advertising since it took office in 1997, and has long been criticised by the Conservatives for using ads to unfairly promote its own electoral chances. If the Tories’ anti-advertising stance takes root, it could be an uncomfortable few years ahead for agencies that have grown rich on COI contracts.

Ironically, Tory grandee Lord Saatchi – a former party chairman – and his art collector brother Charles stand to lose out most heavily from the party’s revolt against advertising. Their ad agency, M&C Saatchi, handles some £10m of TfL’s advertising which, according to Boris’s manifesto, will be substantially reduced. The rest of TfL’s advertising is handled by WCRS, chaired by sartorially flamboyant Tory Robin Wight.

But first of all, Mayor Johnson needs to ensure that his sums add up and that he really can scrap a major part of TfL’s advertising. Within days of taking office, he appointed a committee headed by former Sunday Telegraph editor Patience Wheatcroft to inspect City Hall spending, cut back bureaucracy and rewrite the 2008/09 budget. She will outline her findings within 60 days.

Critics of Johnson’s policy say cutting advertising could end up costing the capital far more than the £20m in savings he is looking to make.

The mayor’s first step in office has been to cut The Londoner, Livingstone’s free magazine delivered to 3 million homes and widely seen as a propaganda sheet. That is the easy part. Cutting press officers could be hard in reality. Reports that Livingstone had the use of 105 press officers are wide of the mark, since many of those staff were working on statutory projects such as running websites and producing information leaflets and booklets. The true figure is closer to 35.

The big question is whether the ad campaigns run by TfL and GLA have delivered value for money. Will it be more expensive to allow some of the behaviour they targeted to continue? One source points to road safety and Metropolitan Police ads that he believes show how cost-effect­ive Livingstone’s ad campaigns have been.

One GLA campaign launched in 2004 aimed to alert women to the dangers of getting into un­licensed mini-cabs. Created by TBWA and directed by film director Mike Leigh, supporters say that following the campaign, the number of assaults on women getting into unlicensed cabs fell from 200 a year to 90, showing that many had heeded the warnings. Given a rape case can cost £250,000 to pursue, they argue the £1m spent on the campaign was worthwhile, both financially and in saving women from the trauma of assault.

Then there is Transport for London’s teenage road safety campaign, “Don’t die before you’ve lived”, created by M&C Saatchi, and other TfL ads such as those encouraging people to cycle. One source says: “I think Boris can easily cut back the ad budget, but it is a false economy, because you risk more people getting into illegal mini-cabs, falling off their motorbikes or getting knocked over. That will work out much more expensive.”

The Metropolitan Police campaigns surrounding Operation Trident, warning teenagers about the dangers of gun crime and encouraging them to inform on people, may also get the axe. Especially when the ad-averse Johnson takes the chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority.

According to Andy Nairn, planning director of agency MCBD, which created the ads, the Trident campaign, which has run for three years and cost £750,000, has seen a huge rise in people coming forward with information about guns.

One 2005 poster, which carried the line “Don’t get blood on your hands – if you know about a gun, call Crimestoppers anonymously”, was followed by an 86% rise in hotline calls about gun crime in 2005, compared to 2004, up from 91 to 153. Nairn says: “It is a classic advertising task to build trust and involvement with an audience.”

Then again, some of Livingstone’s ad drives have appeared propagandist, rather than seeking direct results. One campaign launched in 2003 sought to inform would-be criminals that there is a police officer “just around the corner”, promoting the arrival of 2,000 extra police on the streets of London. If they really were a visible presence, you wouldn’t need an ad campaign to tell people – they would see them.

So there may have been some waste in GLA and TfL advertising. But cutting a swathe through it will waken the mayor’s ability to respond to crises as they emerge or to promote new initiatives, such as recycling.

Other than visiting every home in London personally, it is difficult to see how Johnson will communicate with Londoners. Cynics say that Johnson has The Evening Standard to do his propaganda work for him. But another observer ads: “It will turn against him soon enough.”

At that point, he may regret sacking all those press officers and axing the ad budget.

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