Media: New labours for Chris Powell

How the left's favourite advertising man helped change the Labour Party's image. By Rhys Williams

FORTUNATELY BMP DDB Needham's work is rather more to the point than its name. The agency has just celebrated its 30th anniversary, in some style it has to be said - a record year for creative awards and new business wins, achievements that made it Campaign's least controversial choice as Agency of the Year. It also threw a party.

This is not BMP's style at all. When it launched in 1968, the limit of its ostentation was to insist that the company's name - Boase Massimi Pollitt - featured in red letters on its fleet of chocolate-brown Minis. The agency ignored its 10th birthday, held a staff meeting to mark its 20th, and celebrated its quarter-century with a drink (just the one, apparently) and a slice of cake in the office.

The idea of a party was, frankly, alien, much less a celebration that involved packing out the Albert Hall with 5,000 guests and a cake the size of a garden shed. The other significant moment in the whirl of Happy Birthdays was the announcement that Chris Powell, the agency's public face since anyone can remember, was stepping down as chief executive and taking on the more hands-off role of chairman to accommodate his extra- curricular activities.

Mr Powell, among other things, is deputy chairman of the Riverside Community Health Trust, sits on the board of United News and of a local arts council in west London, and is a member of the marketing forum appointed by the New Millennium Experience Company to act as a litmus group on selling the Dome.

"I've been working on projects outside the agency for four or five years now," he says, "and it was getting embarrassing to have the title of chief executive when other people were running the agency. "

Powell, 55, joined BMP in 1969. He was appointed to the board in 1972 and made managing director three years later. He is one of the most respected practitioners of his trade.

"Advertising is all I have ever done and it's a bit dull to do only one thing in your life," he explains, insisting that his public sector endeavours are not rooted in altruism, or an attempt to correct the perception of the advertising industry as a conscience-free zone. "Working on a health trust is about as different an agenda as you can get from advertising. It's interesting to work with people, district nurses in the main, much more motivated by the satisfaction of their job.

"But, in the end, I fear I have a butterfly mind. The joy of advertising is that you get to look at so many different problems and put your nose into other people's business. It's a fantastic privilege to be able to do that and give your useless opinions to different people. Although I really can't claim I'm running around doing good works. It's selfish. I'm politically interested and involved. It's the satisfaction of Powell's interests and hobbies."

Powell is a political animal. It runs in the family. His elder brother Charles was Margaret Thatcher's foreign affairs adviser; his younger brother Jonathan is Tony Blair's chief of staff. Powell has been a Labour Party member all his adult life and once ran for the Greater London Council before masterminding BMP's landmark anti-GLC abolition advertising campaign in 1984. The "Say no to no say" campaign was never going to prevent abolition, but it alerted Labour to the possibilities of advertising.

"The left had regarded advertising as a tool of right-wing capitalism and something that was there to hurt it rather then help it," says Powell. "I think the right-wing left, such as Roy Hattersley, had a distaste of advertising, rather an aesthetic distaste, based on a dislike of bra advertising on escalators."

Powell agrees that it was largely on the basis of the GLC work that he and BMP were approached by Peter Mandelson to form the nucleus of the Shadow Communications Agency, first at the 1987 general election, then again five years later.

On both occasions, the winning campaigns belonged to the losing side, a fact which Powell finds reassuring. "It would be a terrible comment on humanity if such things made a huge difference," he says. "That said, it probably did help see off the SDP. The predictions made with good reason in the mid-Eighties were that Labour would become the third party. No sane person thought Labour would win in 1987, but the campaign ensured it remained the main party of opposition. It gave Labour the feeling of front-footed professionalism."

If Mandelson was the father of New Labour, then Powell was its kindly uncle. So, does someone who has been so intimate with Labour's communications effort have a view on how the recent fuss has undermined the party's ability to stay on message? "Yes, but not in The Independent," he says.

Powell is rather more forthcoming about BMP and its 30 years of success. Campaign produced a commemorative issue that recalls just how many BMP campaigns, characters and slogans permeated popular culture and passed into the vernacular of their time - "Watch out, watch out, there's a Humphrey about" (Unigate); "It's frothy man" (Cresta); "For mash get smash" (Smash); "Tell 'em about the honey mummy" (Sugar Puffs); and "Follow the bear" (Hofmeister).

Awards and praise have been piled on work for Courage, John Smith's, Volkswagen and the Health Education Authority's Aids-awareness campaigns. Like their spokesman for three decades, BMP's work is thoughtful, often understated but highly effective.

Stefano Hatfield, editor of Campaign, says: "BMP has always created campaigns that are liked by both the industry and the public. They have an excellent populist touch. Chris sets the tone for the agency's decency. He's not luvvie, so he doesn't raise the hackles. He's self-effacing, but he is evangelical about the power of advertising."

Powell also seems to have a healthy sense of there being more important things in life than advertising. Such as cricket, for example. Legend has it that in the Seventies BMP hired on the basis of cricketing ability. An ad for the creative department once read: "Wicket-keeper wanted. Copywriting skills an asset."

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss