Pitfalls of public sector marketing

The Labour Governments love affair with marketing and advertising over the past decade has lured many a marketer through the doors of Whitehall departments. Some forge new careers while others use a spell at a ministry as a stop-off between corporate marketing jobs. Then there are those who fail to adapt to the exigencies of the state sector and are quickly propelled towards the exit.

f1120The Labour Government’s love affair with marketing and advertising over the past decade has lured many a marketer through the doors of Whitehall departments. Some forge new careers while others use a spell at a ministry as a stop-off between corporate marketing jobs. Then there are those who fail to adapt to the exigencies of the state sector and are quickly propelled towards the exit.

But there is little doubt that switching from private company to public sector requires a change of mindset and an ability to work around the rapidly shifting politics of government departments. Last week, former Boots marketer Andrew Brent left the Department of Health (DoH) after five months as director of its £75m anti-obesity marketing drive. He is returning to the corporate world, taking the job of group brand marketing director at BSkyB (MW last week). The DoH says he had come to the end of his contract. A spokesman adds that Brent had agreed with the department’s communications chief Sian Jarvis that he would run preparations for the anti-obesity campaign until he found a new job in the private sector. His work will be taken over by DoH head of marketing Sheila Mitchell.

Brent, who has worked in marketing at Burger King, spent three years at Boots before quitting in April and landing the task of setting up the DoH’s anti-obesity drive. However, he plays down the differences between working in the private and public sectors. “There are differences, but they are not massive. The biggest is that you have to think about the political implications of what you are doing and that can change according to the political environment. But that is part of the fun of it,” he says.

He adds that he originally had no particular ambition to work in government. “I went in not knowing whether I was going to enjoy it or whether it was going to be this strange world. But I really enjoyed it and found the people working there were bright and motivated,” he says.

However, a source close to the DoH says Brent encountered opposition within the department from groups who were opposed to private sector involvement in the Change4Life anti-obesity campaign, which launches at the beginning of next year. Brent was in charge of hiring agencies for the health drive – appointing ad agency M&C Saatchi, direct marketing specialist EHS Brann and media agency Manning Gottlieb OMD for the task. But the source says: “There are people in the DoH who are anti-business of any sort. On one level, there is a view business is bad and people from it are not to be trusted. Andrew Brent was a victim of that.”

As evidence of discord within the department about private sector involvement in Change4Life, the source refers to the Advertising Association’s pledge of £200m in marketing support for the Change4Life campaign from leading brands. A DoH spokeswoman slammed the AA’s announcement, saying it had taken the department by surprise and that the AA had “jumped the gun” (MW July 31). AA chief executive Baroness Peta Buscombe memorably retorted: “I don’t know why they are saying that. We have been planning the announcement with them for months.”

But Brent downplays internecine political conflicts within the department: “In any organisation you get differences of opinion. If you are working in a big company, these are expressed internally and don’t get announced externally. In government, things get picked up and reported by the media.”

He adds: “At the DoH there is a real sense of people trying to work together and come up with a project that works. There is a sense of people feeling they’ve got a duty to work through this and get to the finishing point.”

Meanwhile, at one of Whitehall’s most famous addresses, there are reports that Stephen Carter, ex-boss of ad agency J Walter Thompson, has been sidelined in his role as Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s chief of strategy and principle adviser. Carter, who also ran NTL (now Virgin Media) and helped set up communications regulator Ofcom, was hired by Brown in January from his role as chief executive at public relations company Brunswick. It is understood Brunswick founder Alan Parker, a close contact of Brown, was instrumental in introducing Carter to the PM and recommending him for the job.

It has been widely reported that Carter has fallen foul of in-fighting among Downing Street staff and has been demoted. This is denied by a Cabinet Office spokesman, who says “as far as I am aware” Carter is still in his job. “He still remains principle special adviser in No 10 in charge of political strategy, communications and the policy unit,” he says.

One observer says Carter, who brought in WPP ad executive David Muir as an opinion poll adviser to Brown, has made a real difference at 10 Downing Street by revising the cumbersome bureaucratic processes and systems. This has speeded up decision-making, though another source says this has led to “bad decisions being taken more quickly”.

The source despairs of the tribal warfare within the PM’s office: “Working at Downing Street is not about getting things done, but scoring points off people you don’t like.”

Away from the frenetic atmosphere of Downing Street, there are marketers who thrive in Whitehall such as Jane Frost, the former BBC marketing director who is now a senior marketer at Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. Then there is Alan Bishop, the former Saatchi ad man who is now chief executive of the COI.

One source says Bishop has done a good job at “de-politicising” the COI, but points out that all government jobs are by nature political, and there is only so far that government advertising campaigns can be said to rise above naked political ambition.

The source says that in the private companies, there is a single, highly-demanding but coldly unforgiving master cracking the whip – profit. But in Government departments the ultimate driving force behind any marketing campaign is less clear. Is it really just to reduce road accidents, improve health or stop binge drinking? Or is it to help the minister prosper in their career?

“In business there is a very clear profit motive that tends to pull people along in its wake, it is a simpler task. Government is much more complex. Whatever you do is political whether you like it or not,” says the source.

He adds that marketing in private companies has little chance of becoming political “with a small p” because of the fast pace of change. Executives are constantly being promoted, sacked and switched to different roles as the companies continually restructure. This makes it harder for closely knit interest groups to arise. Government departments, by comparison, are more stable and groups of people often work closely together over many years. These can grow into interest groups with political power bases.

For Charles Trevail, a founder of brand consultancy Promise, the jobs of corporate marketing and running Government information and behaviour change campaigns are opposite. He says: “In traditional marketing, you are generally trying to stimulate demand but in the civil service, you are trying to do the opposite, to reduce costs and limit demand whether it is for fattening food, alcohol or drugs. It is a strange marketing function, you are promoting government policy which becomes perishable because once it is done, the minister may move on to the next thing,” he says.

With government advertising budgets likely to be among the few that remain strong in coming years, more marketers may be attracted to Whitehall jobs. But they will need to be prepared to walk a political tightrope. And they will have to stop trying to stimulate desires and instead encourage people to repress them.

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