Hey, big spender...

Peter Buchanan, deputy chief executive, COI. As one of the top men at the Government’s marketing unit,Buchanan holds the purse strings of the UK’s second-largest advertiser. As Julia Martin discovers, it’s all money well spent

With obesity one of the crunch issues for public wellbeing at the moment, the Government's health experts are pulling out the stops to get the nation fit and healthy.

So it is good to know that, as the man behind many of these campaigns, Peter Buchanan takes his own advice and starts each day with a proper breakfast. "Very important," he says.

The fact that this healthy breakfast is eaten at his desk, in front of the computer while checking e-mails, is testament to the fact that his role as deputy chief executive of the Central Office of Information keeps him with a very full plate.

The independent agency handles all the marketing communications for the Government, as well as for many other areas within the public sector – a mammoth task bearing in mind the number of campaigns run each year on issues as wide-ranging as drink-driving to army recruitment.

As such, Buchanan heads up one of the UK's most significant marketing operations.

The COI is the country's second-biggest advertiser, spending over £167m in the 12 months ending October 2004.

And it is not just conventional media campaigns that the organisation handles.

Buchanan and his team of in-house specialists, based in Lambeth, well away from the media hub of Soho, work with some of the top agencies across direct marketing, advertising, media planning and buying to ensure the COI is constantly at the forefront of marketing communications.

One project which shows the agency moving with the times is an SMS campaign aimed at teenagers for safety last Fireworks Night.

Teenagers, Buchanan says, are a notoriously difficult group to reach, especially through traditional mediums like television – which provides a major hurdle as they are the target for many of the Government's messages.

"That remains an important issue and we're looking for innovative ways of reaching them," he says, reflecting on some of the COI's biggest challenges for the year ahead.

It is a problem he claims is shared with marketers across the board. Indeed, while the COI is undoubtedly a unique beast, it has much in common with its private sector counterparts, both in the challenges it faces and the way it works with media agencies and owners.

It is a world Buchanan has had a chance to view from both sides, having started his career at one of the hottest advertising agencies of the 1980s, Saatchi & Saatchi.

Key distinctions

There are, of course, severalmajor differences. As the Government's own marketing expert, it has to handle a hugely varied bag of intangible issues rather than being able to specialise in one area, such as food.

For example, while FMCG behemoth Unilever is split into dedicated companies looking after personal and home care, frozen and fresh food and ice cream, the COI's widesweeping remit means Buchanan's team works with clients such as the Department of Health, the armed forces and the Home Office on a truly diverse spread of subjects.

It also has to work as the middle party of a three-way relationship between the commissioning government department and the media or advertising agency.

"It's important that everyone understands the way it works – it's a genuinely three-way relationship, which is quite unique." Buchanan says.

Another significant difference between the COI and other commercial heavyweights is the variety of audiences for its campaigns.

"Our target audiences are somewhat different from the commercial sector," Buchanan points out. "We're targeting the most vulnerable rather than people who are commercially active. They're trying to attract people with high disposable incomes; our objectives are somewhat different."

But while the differences are undeniable, Buchanan insists both the public and private sector have much in common, reflected in the fact that between himself and his colleagues, the COI sits on most of the industry's leading action bodies, such as Isba.

It is also guided by the Advisory Committee on Advertising, a group of leading figures from the private sector whom Buchanan says he truly admires.

"It's a pretty important group of people," he says. "They've been hugely supportive of what we're trying to do and also very good for government top-quality advice."

Cutting through clutter

One of the major issues of the moment being discussed by these industry leaders, for both the COI and commercial marketers, is cutting through media clutter, he claims.

"[It's] an issue that faces us all. One of the solutions is to get as close to the point of decision as possible."

"For car crime, when people get out of the car at the petrol station or are going into a car park and might be tempted to leave items on show – those are the sort of opportunities we look for."

"And if we want to talk to young people about drugs then doing it in the pub/bar environment can be a relevant way to reach them."

In the fight against both car crime and drugs, the COI has turned to ambient media, a method it has taken to heart and now uses in many of its campaigns. Hand pumps in petrol station forecourts feature messages such as "park your stuff out of sight" and beer mats in bars are used to push the anti-drugs message to those elusive young people.

The COI's embracing of ambient media is just one example of how it is consistently pushing its efforts to find effective ways of communicating with its audience. It may not be the newest marketing trick but the agency's insightful use of it at the point of decision shows it is as canny as any of the major commercial advertisers.

But this is to be expected. Buchanan says the COI sees itself as a "centre of marketing excellence" and constantly strives to be at the forefront of marketing innovation, as well as bolstering the industry in other ways.

"In certain areas, like agency management and valuation, we're very innovative and are often leading best practice compared with commercial operations," he says.

"For example, we have to manage an awful lot of competitive presentations and we always ensure the unsuccessful companies are offered a full debrief. The agencies tell us that's quite unusual."

"In commercial organisations those companies wouldn't have the time, or perhaps would be embarrassed. The reason we do it is that we want agencies who don't succeed to do better next time. I think we have a role to play there and hopefully it's something the industry finds helpful."

More proof of the organisation's embrace of new mediums and marketing methods is its foray into advertiser-funded programming, for the National Blood Service, and its status as the biggest user of interactive television in the country – with direct response campaigns for, among others, armed forces recruitment.

Direct response is in fact a huge area for the agency – as for many companies – and one that is growing. Most of the campaigns it puts together have a variety of different response methods, with many of the campaigns achieving high volumes of feedback.

To harness the full capacity of this data, the COI has upped its direct marketing spend by over a third, from £29m in the financial year 2002/03 to £36.4m the following year.

The agency also has a direct response campaign database, currently being upgraded, which looks at response in relation to media type, positioning and target audience, helping to analyse cost per response. This intelligence can then be incorporated into planning.

"Managing that response and using it to inform media planning is a very important issue and one which we're investing more and more time in," Buchanan says.

Complexities

"The difference is, with commercial advertisers they are looking for a particular type of response; the responses we try to collect are so varied across so many different subject areas that it's more complex for us."

Complexities are no stranger to the work of the COI however, and certainly not seen as an adequate excuse not to experiment with new methodology.

Buchanan insists: "There's no inhibition to try any new opportunity that presents itself."

A refreshing fact considering the bureaucracy that often surrounds government and its associated agencies.

"We have a degree of independence. In order to operate in the world of marketing we have to be fleet of foot. The market in which we operate demands us to be so, and our partners are very good at making decisions quickly where they need to," he says.

Independent of the Government it may be, but the intrinsic links bring challenges.

The possibility of an election this spring (5 May seems a likely date) has made true forward planning for 2005 virtually impossible, with the real – if unlikely – possibility that there could be a new party at the helm come summer.

Of course this is not an unfamiliar situation for the COI, and being a well-oiled machine, there is a strategy for dealing with this sort of complication.

As soon as the election is called, the COI enters a so-called Purdah period – a convention which means that, until the election is over, there can be no major government advertising campaigns or announcements.

Buchanan explains: "The arrangement's been in place for many years and everyone is very cooperative. In practice, a lot of the campaigns will continue after the election but there's no guarantee." He adds: "Forward planning is always an issue anyway because events change and some of the campaign expenditure is difficult to predict."

They also have to react quickly to national and international events which impact on the public mood – just as commercial advertisers do, sometimes having to pull campaigns.

Buchanan sympathises with the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which last month shelved a campaign on climate change caused by carbon emissions in the wake of the Asian tsunami crisis.

"Like any major advertiser, it's important to be sensitive to events as they occur and to take appropriate action so that no offence is caused. For example, at the time of 11 September, we took a campaign off air that showed images of death because that could have been offensive in the circumstances," he says.

Reviewing accounts

One process peculiar to government-associated operations is the statutory requirement to review media and advertising accounts every five years, something that many commercial marketing directors would find impossibly constraining in a world where such strong relationships are formed with agencies and the individuals within them.

The COI announced in November 2004 that it was set to begin a complete review of its media buying accounts, followed by a review of its media planning in July this year. The advertising rosta is also set to be reviewd in 2005, possibly during the Purdah period although it is not strictly neccessary until 2006. But any relationships that have been built up over the past five years will have to be put firmly to one side, Buchanan insists.

"We tend to develop relationships with key individuals rather than saying that agency A is head and shoulders above others," he admits.

"There are some very talented people out there, but we have to go back to basics and build a picture of the supplier in a neutral way."

"That's one significant difference to the private sector. For all sorts of good and understandable reasons, marketing directors will build up relationships they'll take from one job to another.We simply can't do that."

While any marketing director will sympathise with the need for transparency, especially when it comes to the marketing budget, it is never truer than for a public sector organisation like the COI.

Not only are staff unable to accept gifts – even the odd bottle of Champagne from a pleased client or pitching agency – under the rules of the Civil Service Code, they also have to be fastidious about how they spend all those tax-payers' pounds.

"It's particularly important for us dealing with relatively large sums of public money,"

Buchanan admits. "It's important that we're accountable and that we can demonstrate everything is done in a fair, even-handed way. We have a good record in that area."

As an advertiser, the fact that it has such significant amounts of cash to spend brings with it certain kudos and desirability with the agency world, as well as an inevitable weight of responsibility.

"There are no egos but we take our responsibilities very seriously," he says. "We do understand our position but we want to use that to the benefit of our clients. One of the benefits of the COI should be that we have the resources and throughput to engage all media industry at the highest levels."

Indeed, the COI offers 25 specialist marketing services, including digital media, relationshipmarketing and events organisation.

"We have all the specialist services organised under nine directors and those directors meet on a monthly basis to share learnings, best practice and to review work being done between various groups," Buchanan explains.

"The more campaigns we run, the more we learn about new opportunities."

One of the key opportunities to come out recently from these shared learning sessions is that of events and exhibitions.

Buchanan says the COI is to look at bringing together event organisers and research specialists to carry out more substantial research into how effective its events have been.

"There's far more of those sorts of combinations of people from different marketing disciplines coming together," he says. "We're active in all the various marketing industries we operate in. We employ people with a wide range of backgrounds, not just people with purely public sector marketing experience, which you tend not to get in agencies. It's a nice balance of experience and energy."

Buchanan is also harnessing the breadth of marketing experience for more wide-reaching research than just that into events.

As any marketer knows, the pool of research into various consumer groups gathered over the years is invaluable in fine-tuningmarketing campaigns to effectively reach those hallowed customers.

But because of the nature of the groups targeted by COI campaigns, which, as Buchanan says are far removed from the usual advertiser's target audience, there is little public research data on them.

As a result, the COI is ploughing resources into carrying out its own research into these often hard-to-reach audiences, with a dedicated research team working to build a picture of the behaviours and attitudes of these groups.

Importantly, again because of the responsibility of public funds and economic efficiency, this research is aimed at covering audiences relevant to the maximum number of government departments and public sector organisations.

But coming out of this, it is clear that while there is an undeniable difference between the public and private sector target audiences, there are also startling similarities.

Last year, the COI carried out a research programme into black and ethnic audiences, forecasting what was to happen in the commercial sector just months later.

Media agency Starcom released a report in December claiming advertising – andmarketing campaigns in general – often under-delivered to ethnic audiences by failing to recognise the benefits of specific tailoring, while Media- Com announced the launch of CultureCom, a division to develop relationships with all cultures in the UK.

And, just last week,OMDUK and Manning Gottlieb joined in by launching Minority Report – the largest survey of UK ethic minorities' attitudes to media and advertising.

But the COI took the issue one step further by seconding its senior campaign manager, Mehboob Umarji, to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising last March for a sixmonth project looking at whether young people from ethnic-minorty backgrounds pursue careers in advertising.

It is yet another example of living up to its commitment to be at the vanguard of the marketing industry, anticipating broader trends and acting on them, as well as dealing with its own unique challenges.

But keeping one step ahead also requires a keen understanding of what is happening elsewhere in the industry – challenges that may be unique to the commercial sector rather than the COI.

Buchanan claims one of the biggest of those challenges is the debate over the dearth of marketing representation at board level within large corporates. Marketing directors have expressed concerns that marketing is still not given the recognition it deserves at senior management level, something Buchanan is grateful is not the case at the COI.

"I can see how that would be very frustrating," he says. "We're slightly different as we're a marketing services organisation, but an equivalent within the public sector would be that within government, directors of communication would normally sit on the management board of that department."

Away from the boardroom, he says certain sectors within the industry will be facing a particularly difficult year. Part of the Government's battle to improve the nation's health by cracking down on binge drinking, backed up by Ofcom's crack down on advertising regulations, presents a distinct problem for drinks companies like Diageo and Bacardi.

Food and confectionery brands also have much to think about in the light of the obesity crisis, with growing pressure on retailers to promote healthy eating, and new restrictions on advertising food to children.

So does the COI see any possibility of commercial advertisers working with the agency to address these issues?

Buchanan is reluctant to comment on how those affected advertisers should respond, but he does concede there are opportunities for tie-ups between government and private sector organisations that are too good to miss.

"We're not a policy making body but what I can say is there are one or two very good recent examples where government has come together with other bodies," he says.

"One was the Visit Britain campaign to persuade people from abroad to come to to the U.K [in the wake of 9/11]. That was partly funded by government and partly by a consortium of commercial sector organisations such as British Airways, hotel groups and ferries."

"Also, with tobacco control, the NHS worked with two leading charities, with integrated activity. It's been very successful and won a major award at the IPA Effectiveness Awards."

It is not just through tie-ups with the private sector, however, that the COI is able to extend its client base. As part of its plan for 2005, Buchanan is keen to let the wider public sector know the benefits of the agency.

"In the last couple of years, we've attracted £20m of additional media business from the broader public sector such as the Food Standards Agency and the Energy Saving Trust," he says. "We want tomake sure those types of organisations know we're here and what we have to offer."

The motivation for chasing a wider clientele may not be immediately obvious for a non-profitable organisation but the benefits of aggregate expenditure certainly make it worthwhile, Buchanan explains.

"The more that comes through us, the more we can invest in people, systems and doing better business deals, in organising live events, buying the services of call services and, very simply, in doing things like buying paper."

To this end, he has recently appointed a director of marketing, David Foxon, something the COI has not had for many years, who is putting together a strategy to market the agency itself.

"As we've increased the range of services we offer we think we have a bigger story to tell," he explains. "Another benefit is we get to see the full picture in terms of government departments being responsible for development of government policy, but the execution of the policy may be handled by a government agency, so we get to see the full picture."

Keeping his eye on "the bigger picture" is clearly important to Buchanan. Reflecting on the difference between his time in the agency world to his current role on the client-side he notes that yet again, the COI offers a unique perspective on the overall marketing process.

"The marketing services industry can be a bit introspective and not see the broader world outside their particular area. One of the things I have really enjoyed is we see a much bigger picture. In our case, we see more of policy formulation, so we have a better understanding of downstreamdelivery issues."

But does he ever yearn to get back to the world of commercial advertising? "I'm very happy in my job here," he insists. "For me personally, the motivation is the variety of the work and the opportunity to meet more interesting people, both in the agency world and on the client side."

Lambeth may not be as glamourous as Soho but for now, it's home.

My marketing day...

Aim to arrive at 8.30 to 8.45am after short tube ride from Maida Vale and a walk from Waterloo.

Check the e-mails and start the day with breakfast.

Scan the papers for news that might affect us.

Check the day's schedule with PA, Rochelle. Among other things, I'm going to be a judge at the British Television Advertising Awards and Rochelle needs to forwardmy details to them.

Prepare for client meeting on Images of Disability (featuring disabled people in government marketingmaterials).

Taxi to Department for Work and Pensions inWhitehall for 10.30am start.

Meeting goes well. Details for a creative directors' workshop agreed by the minister.

Back at COI, amajor new campaign brief needs to be circulated to the Advisory Committee on Advertising.

Check everything is in order.

Lunchtime: occasionally meet a supplier in theWest End. More typically a walk round the local park where COI's football teamis winning, followed by a sandwich at our new in-house restaurant where you can also catch up on the lunchtime bulletin.

Early afternoon: prepare for agency meeting. Today it's a quarterly update on TV buying with StarcomMediavest.

Meeting goes well. Buying on track. Agency has interesting idea for research among disaffected youth. Head of TV, KevinWest, on top of his game.

Back in office: take a call from Isba. Will I represent them on a joint industry committee reviewing agency remuneration?

Agree to take part.

Late afternoon: time for contemplation!What should I have done today that I've missed?

Wander round the building to catch up with other directors and see what else is going on.

End of day: touch base with Alan Bishop, chief executive.

Alan debriefs me on a meeting at Cabinet Office.

Around 6.30pmand Maida Vale beckons. About once a fortnight, take up an invitation to an industry function.

Career Path

Peter Buchanan

2001 Deputy chief executive COI
1996 Director ofmarketing communications COI
1994 Director of advertising COI
1991 Client services director Impact FCA!, Publicis Group
1987 Group account director Saatchi & Saatchi
1983 Appointed to London board Saatchi & Saatchi
1974 Graduate trainee Saatchi & Saatchi

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