Risk taker responsible for reshaping the COI

Mark Lund, chief executive of the COI, might only have been in his role for just over three months, but he is already planning a three-step programme to change how the governmental department in charge of communications operates.

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Mark Lund:

“The range of audiences that government addresses is wider than any commercial advertiser in my experience, and this affects both ends of the age scale. With our clients, we do a huge amount of research to try to understand unconventional lifestyles and which media fit into them most effectively.

“Another challenge we face is in regard to those with reading difficulties and communicating with those who are sight or hearing impaired. Certainly the onus is on us and the agencies we work with to find the most imaginative and wide ranging use of media within a campaign; many COI campaigns have a greater variety of media channels within the same campaign than commercial advertisers might employ.”

Andrew Marsden is former category director of Britvic; ex-president of the Marketing Society, and a former adviser to the COI.

Mike Moran asks: “COI has produced consistently strong digital marketing activity; often well ahead of the average agency curve. While all agencies claim excellence in digital, very few actually deliver it. Given the changes in approach that you have announced, I would be worried that you risk appointing a single media provider but sub-optimising your digital activity at precisely the point where you need to optimise it still further. What do you think?”

Mark Lund: “We’re certainly proud of the digital work we’ve helped our clients to do in the past few years and we’re committed to both keeping up the quality and quantity as we go forward. Digital channels and platforms have an increasingly central role in how government communicates with citizens and this is very much in our minds as we go through the media buying tender process.

“Key to our thinking though is that media channels increasingly have to be seen as an interwoven pattern and not standalone. This is particularly true of digital, which is already emerging as the glue which binds together a campaign and the dialogue it creates.

“We are therefore looking for a model (be it individual agency, group or consortium) that can best integrate online and offline and drive new trading and pricing models based on outcomes. This has to be optimised for the whole picture not just one channel.”

Mike Moran is former commercial director of Toyota GB; and former worldwide marketing and strategy director of Thames Water. He is also a former COI adviser.

Q&A

You’ve been about three months in your new job. Has it been a culture shock moving from the private to the public sector?

It’s a very interesting mixture of the familiar and the foreign. I’m still mostly engaged in using communications and marketing to solve problems. Communication strategies and advertising campaigns do have certain similarities. You’re still dealing, for example, with creative people, strategists, planners and media experts.

But there are three significant differences with my old life in advertising. This is a bigger business – 700-odd people spread across more than one location. It’s also a business that buys as well as sells. We work with our end-clients – the departments – but we’re also procuring and working with private sector agencies. We’re a double-headed beast in that sense.

And finally, this is public sector rather than a private sector business: it means a different working ethos and a different working day.

Do you mean your days are longer?

I think the day is probably shorter, but the working habits are very different. Agencies… well, I worked a bit, messed around a bit, worked a bit. But people here, and in government, come in and work. And then they go home. It’s a much more disciplined, corporate work ethic.

There’s also a palpable sense of mission, both here and in the departments we work with, in terms of what people are doing and why they want to get a good outcome. It’s just that I’d like to introduce a little bit of playfulness to aid original thought and creativity.

You’re making it sound like a deadly serious job.

It is a more serious job. The things we do communications about are fundamentally more important in social terms. Whether people are drinking too much, whether they’re being safe on the roads, whether they are smoking, whether they’re eating the right things, taking enough exercise or creating too much carbon dioxide are pretty significant things. Each of those things has a price tag of billions of pounds every year; and a lot of human misery or happiness attached to it.

There’s a different quality to the outcomes, too. One is concerned with profit, the other with human welfare. Isn’t it harder to gauge the success of government communications campaigns than to assess profitability in the private sector?

If you look at what government has done over the past ten years, there are some terrific examples of success. Smokers will be down 28% to 20% by the end of next year and the number of people dying on the roads, or suffering serious accidents, has come down 40%.

The number of people filling in their tax online and on time has gone up massively, saving HMRC £500m last year; we’re now recruiting 60,000 teachers a year on a smaller budget than the one we had to recruit a smaller number ten years ago. These are some of the examples of finite success in the realm of government communications programmes.

The importance of communication in delivering policy cost effectively is getting greater, because a lot of it is about not just informing people but changing behaviour. If you look at the growing science of behavioural change, as exemplified in the popular world by things like “nudge” or “influence”, then communications is one of the big levers you can pull to help deliver your policy.

I think there’s going to be a growing pressure to use communications really well and, as a result, more emphasis on how they are evaluated.

As the UK’s largest ‘advertiser’ – particularly given it is taxpayers’ money you are spending – you have to be seen to conduct business in an exemplary way. How does this affect your approach to metrics?

While there are plenty of examples of award-winning communications strategies over the past ten years, “behaviour change outcomes” are harder to measure. We would be falling down on the job if we did not say: “How can we get better?” This is not only in the area of systematic measurement, but in defining what exactly you do measure.

Obviously proxy measures are harder to work out than the commercial criteria of: “Was there a sale, and at what level of profit was that sale made?”

How do you find dealing with politicians instead of clients?

First of all, I mainly deal with civil servants – communicators and policy people within departments. I rarely work directly with politicians. In fact I haven’t yet met either Tessa Jowell or Shaun Woodward, to whom I am now responsible via the Cabinet Office.

So, the kind of conversations I’m having, with departmental experts, is not unlike that with conventional commercial clients. In fact, one of the things that got me really interested in the job was meeting people like the permanent secretary of government communication, Matt Tee, and some of the departmental directors of communications and finding that they are very lively, very intelligent and creative, even.

The difference between these people and clients is much less than I had thought from the outside. The amount of external mobility there has been in the civil service, particularly in the communications area over the past five years, means its culture is much less homogeneous than it used to be.

Moving to the day-to-day management of your job, and the handling of the agency side of the business, is it wise to consolidate your agency rosters – particularly your media one – so drastically?

We got a consultant, Douglas MacArthur [former head of the Radio Advertising Bureau], to look at this whole area a couple of years ago. He concluded, rather presciently, I think, that two things were happening in the media world.

One trend was the proliferation and flattening of channels; another that the days when television was the majority of the influence you could aspire to, with a bit of press and posters backing it up, are nearing an end.

That’s come to pass: the recent Internet Advertising Bureau figures demonstrate that digital, however imprecisely measured, is now a bigger medium than television. We are confronting a much more complex ecology of channels – individually less important, but which will work together as a kind of more complex soup. And digital will probably be the glue that holds them all together.

In that context, the ability to plan and buy across media and channels, becomes massively important. The silo approach is out of date; you have to look at how you are going to create the most powerful combination of messages. So the logic of going from six agencies to one, as opposed to, say, having two or three, is overwhelming.

But aren’t you going to lose some vital specialisms by curtailing the rosters so much?

We’ve deliberately created a brief not around one agency or even one holding organisation; it’s for a group of companies that think they can work together to provide the best pan-channel solution. The desire is to create something that is holistic, but contains as much specialist skill as possible.

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