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."

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
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.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?