Carol Fisher’s announcement last week that she was stepping down as chief executive of the COI Communications (COI) came as a bombshell to the unit’s 400 staff and the advertising agencies that have seen their commissions rocket during her time in charge.
After three and a half years in the post, Fisher says she wants to return to the “big wide world of commerce”, though others are demanding an explanation from the Government about her departure.
The news comes after one of the most controversial periods in the history of the COI, amid accusations that its neutrality has been compromised and that New Labour has turned the information unit into an electioneering machine. Before the last general election, government spending on advertising rocketed year on year by nearly 70 per cent to £192.5m, and opposition politicians claimed that many of the campaigns were less about giving information to the public and more about boosting the Government’s re-election chances.
Then, last February, there was controversy about reports that Fisher had been given the role of marketing communications adviser to the Government, reporting to, or at least liaising with Alastair Campbell (MW February 7). It seemed that Downing Street was about to mount a full takeover of the supposedly impartial COI.
Within 24 hours of Fisher announcing her departure last Thursday, Liberal Democrat deputy leader Alan Beith issued a statement saying: “There has been so much justified concern about government spending on advertising in the run-up to the General Election that, unless the Government provides an alternative explanation, questions are bound to be asked about whether that is somehow connected with Carol Fisher’s departure.”
There is at present no government minister responsible for the COI following the Stephen Byers reshuffle, though Douglas Alexander is tipped to take the post. A Cabinet Office spokesman said the reasons for Fisher’s departure were clear and he “did not recognise the comments” from Beith.
According to Fisher, she is leaving because of personal career considerations rather than any machinations of government.
She says she has become disillusioned with working within a government bureaucracy. “I am not a civil servant and I never will be a civil servant. I signed a three-year contract to stay and that has finished.” She says she has achieved everything she wanted to, and “the job does not hold the same challenges it did three years ago”. She has not got another job lined up but claims the “world is her oyster”.
Before joining the COI, Fisher had headed marketing at a number of big brands such as Holsten and Courage and supervised sales at Talk Radio. The allure, excitement and salary opportunities in the private sector may be exerting an unstoppable pull.
It seems a difficult time to quit a steady job in government to rejoin the commercial sector. There is a severe advertising recession, many ad agencies are laying people off rather than recruiting them and a lot of clients have cut back heavily on marketing budgets as well. But Fisher says: “My career is full of brave decisions,” and adds that she has thought long and hard about it.
Of her achievements at the COI, she says: “I wanted to make the COI a world-class leader in public communications. I think I have achieved this and it has a positive profile with clients and agencies.”
She says that, in the past, media owners did not really “jump like they do with Procter & Gamble” when the COI got on the phone. They do now. The COI has truly harnessed its buying power.
One insider says that since February, Fisher has been stripped of her role reporting to Campbell – and hence the Prime Minister – in a U-turn. Fisher rubbishes this suggestion, maintaining that her relationship with Campbell has remained very open and constructive, and that the timing of the decision to leave was governed by different factors.
Fisher says she has never “reported” to Campbell, despite a “badly worded” government release on February 5 that used the word “report”: “In order to improve best value for all government marketing communications, COI’s chief executive Carol Fisher will take on an additional role as chief adviser on marketing communications, reporting to the Prime Minister’s director of strategy and communications.”
In June, Cabinet Office minister Lord Macdonald of Tradeston clarified the position, saying in the House of Lords that Fisher would “work with” Campbell rather than report to him.
One insider says she is getting out while the going is good. In her time in charge of the Government’s information unit, she has presided over an unprecedented rise in the level of Whitehall expenditure on advertising. She has steered the COI successfully through its five-year review, turned it into a more efficient and cutting-edge organisation, seen it co-ordinate a number of award-winning Government ads and put in place a strategic consultancy division to help the COI increase its role in planning campaigns.
But she has also seen one of the biggest spending ministries, the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) take its advertising business away from the COI and go it alone.
A question still hangs over the ultimate goal of the COI. Ostensibly it is to help government departments that are inexperienced in running ads put together successful campaigns. But with so much government advertising around these days, most departments are rapidly gaining experience, and may begin asking themselves whether they need the COI.
The usual answer is that the body gets discounts on media deals through pooling the budgets of so many departments. But with the exit of the DTLR, this justification begins to look potentially weaker. As one insider says, it would only take two or three other departments to pool their media resources with the DTLR to make it worthwhile opting out of the COI and doing their own thing.
It is understood Fisher has looked into the chances of taking up a post within a marketing consultancy, and she does not rule this out. She does not envisage any problems in finding work in this economic climate and says: “In a recession you need the best people.”
She is open-minded about her next move. “I have a seriously unusual CV.” She says she is genuinely interested in media companies after her experience at Talk Radio. But she would consider most jobs. Fisher is anything if not confident – she thinks a company could create a position especially for her.