Public concerns over private interests

From being in charge of the Change One Thing initiative to lynchpin of Change4Life, the new 75m government national campaign aimed at combating obesity, is quite a step up for former Boots marketing director Andrew Brent.

From being in charge of the “Change One Thing” initiative to linchpin of Change4Life, the new £75m government national campaign aimed at combating obesity, is quite a step up for former Boots marketing director Andrew Brent.

And a highly symbolic one at that. Though he enjoys the highest profile, Brent is only one of a number of “classic” marketers who have migrated from the private to the public sector in recent times.

No doubt this has something to do with following the money. At a time when companies are fearful of the consequences of an economic downturn, government departments, by contrast, continue to spend freely on such campaigning issues as road safety, crime prevention and health. Indeed, the COI – which coordinates government departments’ brand communications – will see a record spend passing through it next year.

But there has to be more to this migration than simply money. In the New Labour era, marketing has become such an integral element of successful government that politicians now find it is far too important to be left in the hands of the anally-retentive bureaucrats who staff the departments of state. An important early indicator of this trend was the successive appointments – the first largely a failure, the second an overwhelming success – of former drinks marketer Carol Fisher and then ex-Saatchi adman Alan Bishop to the position of chief executive of the COI.

By a small stretch of imagination, you may discern the same sort of thinking going on at the BBC with the appointments, over the years, of Sue Farr, Andy Duncan and Tim Davie.

Quite often, the private-sector graft doesn’t take. Bureaucrats, perhaps understandably, are suspicious of a “salesy”, entrepreneurial approach. It rocks the boat too much, without there being a verifiable justification. It also threatens to take the initiative away from those who may have been toiling industriously in the shadows.

Something of this resentment has evidently exploded onto the scene with the announcement of Change4Life last week. This is a much broader initiative than a £75m ad campaign masterminded by Brent and M&C Saatchi and fronted by health secretary Alan Johnson. In its penumbra is £200m-worth of airtime, programming and promotional activity contributed by media owners and major brands anxious to coat-tail onto the health responsibility message.

No more ad bans?
This important ancillary contribution, perhaps to be known as Business4Life, is largely the brainchild of Advertising Association chief executive Peta Buscombe. It is no mean achievement. Buscombe, a Conservative peer, has used her political experience and contacts to cement a tricky alliance between government and commerce, with evident benefits for both sides.

But this week, some of the lustre was wiped from the rainbow coalition as tensions emerged.

Brands are keen to shed the reputation of convenient political whipping boys for the national obesity crisis. In the words of Rupert Howell, ITV managing director for brand and commercial: “This is a fantastic opportunity for the media and advertising worlds to prove definitively to Government and opinion formers that the best way to tackle obesity is to harness the positive power of advertising, not to indulge in futile ad bans.”

Indeed it is a “fantastic opportunity”, but possibly one best not gloated over. After all, people in the Department of Health might easily get the impression that “their” initiative is being highjacked by a bunch of irresponsible commercial types eager to bend a serious public health agenda to the grubby business of making a quick profit.

Bristling suspicion
At very least there seems to have been some misunderstanding about the extent of commercial collaboration in the exercise. DoH officials were sceptical about the idea of Kellogg backing the initiative with an on-pack promotion called Swim 4Life, and positively bridled at the suggestion that so called “junk food” companies, such as Mars, Cadbury, NestlÈ and Coca-Cola, might have long-term involvement in the project (which could mean up to the 2012 Olympics). The AA, they claimed, had “jumped the gun” with its own announcement about the initiative.

Maybe this is a storm in a teacup that will soon subside. And maybe not. Last year a similar hiccup occurred, though admittedly on a smaller scale, over the Drink Aware campaign. David Poley, chief executive of drinks industry ginger body, the Portman Group, thought he had entered into a ten-year partnership with the Government designed to combat irresponsible drinking. So he was greatly surprised to find that Caroline Flint, then junior health minister, had highjacked the agenda by announcing there would be a fresh review of the regulatory framework ahead of telling him.

There is ample room for corrosive suspicion on both sides of the Change4Life initiative as well. But it is too important to fail. Buscombe will need all her considerable political skills to ensure it does not.

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