The Bishop checks out

From early next year, Alan Bishop will be chief executive of the Southbank Centre. Should we see his imminent departure from the Central Office of Information, which he has captained for six years, as anything more than an innocent desire to spend more time with the arts he loves?

The answer requires careful scrutiny of his record at the COI.

The role of COI chief executive is a curious hybrid one. On the one hand, its occupant is every agency’s favourite uncle. He (or she) wields tremendous patronage as the UK’s biggest client: at £391m a year, the marketing communications budget comfortably outstrips that of number two spender Procter & Gamble. But it’s not just the money, it’s also the prestige of having a COI account on the agency roster. Once accredited, more business may well come your way and, just as importantly, the halo effect of government business achieved through a rigorous selection process will impress other, commercial, clients.

On the other hand, the COI ceo is an accountable civil servant whose organisation acts as a clearing house for money originating in other government departments over which he or she has no direct control.

The complexity of the job description which goes with the post should be something to behold. Not only must its holder have the gamut of thrusting, dynamic, leadership qualities associated with a ceo in the private sector, he or she must also be endowed with all the charm, tact, administrative and political skills needed to bridge the wide gap between commercial values and the civil service mentality.

Mission impossible? You might well think so. Traditionally, the solution to finding the ‘right’ candidate was a bit of a cop-out. The job would go to a nice old boy in the ad industry spanning the last few years to retirement: strong on tact and networking skills, but not self-evidently vested with strategic vision.

About ten years ago, the need for change became self evident. The increasing challenge of media fragmentation, not to mention New Labour’s commitment to a soaring spend figure, demanded a sharper, more dynamic commercial touch. The COI certainly acquired these qualities in former drinks client Carol Fisher, its first female ceo. But her forthright, no-prisoners-taken demeanour made her a controversial figure whose presence unnerved the civil service. She did not sign up for a second three-year contract. And by the time she left, there was serious dissension in government departments, some of whom (notably the DoT) were plotting UDI from the COI.

Enter the Bishop
Into this snake-pit stepped the urbane Bishop. In one sense he was a reversion to tradition: a former adman. The charm and social adroitness came as part of a package labelled “consummate account man”, which indeed he is. No one had ever accused Bishop of being eaten by ambition (some might consider this a cardinal shortcoming in the Darwinian world of advertising). But the fact that, over 18 years, he held a series of increasingly senior positions at Saatchi & Saatchi, culminating in chairman of S&S International, is probably testament enough to Bishop’s wiliness, his instinct for survival and his astute political nature. Add to this the mental sharpness of the accomplished bridge player and Bishop begins to look like the shoo-in for the role of COI ceo that he was in November 2002.

Bishop’s most evident early achievement was to pour balm into the wounds that had opened up in the COI’s interdepartmental fabric. The threat from the DoT and others was seen off. But his far-reaching overhaul of the COI roster and remuneration system; his reweighting of below-the-line (in the context of the digital revolution); and his management of the sheer size and complexity of the monster the COI has become also deserve recognition.

Most of all, perhaps, he has understood how to exploit the needs of politicians and civil servants. Civil servants and their political masters tend to see advertising (in the broad sense of the word) as a cost rather than an investment. It is an adjunct, and a rather junior one at that, to communications. In other words, it plays a small part in the totality of the message a department of state is trying to get out at any given time. Worse, it is fearfully expensive and annoyingly unaccountable.

The Bishop-sponsored solution to this has been econometric modelling, which helps to justify expenditure and “prove” savings to the various sponsoring government departments. Thus, for example, the recent anti-knife campaign cost about £21m, but the savings – portrayed in terms of cost of policing – were deemed to be £590m!

So seriously has Bishop become a player in the Whitehall game that latterly he has dedicated the majority of his management time to it. In an informal division of powers, Bishop manages the mandarins and his trusty number two, Peter Buchanan, deals with the admen.

End game
Sadly for Bishop, and certainly his successor, the COI gravy train is about to hit the buffers. Expenditure, which has quadrupled since 1997, must now be retrenched. There are at least two reasons for this, one a certainty, the other a strong hypothetical possibility.

The first is an inescapable iron corset that is about to be buckled around public sector expenditure thanks to our deepening recession.

The second is a zeitgeist issue: public service advertising may soon go out of political fashion, especially if the Tories win the next general election. It tends to thrive under Labour governments, the theory being that COI spend provides any left-wing administration with a propaganda counter-balance to a right-wing press.

Conversely, the Conservatives – generally the party of tax cuts and public-sector retrenchment – see advertising as an easy target. As we may judge from the recent political initiatives of the Mayor of London (who wants to cut advertising to pay for more bobbies on the beat) and the shadow chancellor of the exchequer (who has threatened to cut COI expenditure in half to pay for a two-year freeze on council tax).

Whether the Conservatives are about to achieve power in the next election or not, now certainly seems a good time for Bishop to bask in his achievements and bow out. Though, clearly, he’s not ready for retirement just yet.

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