Media: The challenge: turn Labour into a winner: Who will be prepared to take on the job of advertising the Opposition? Martin Rosenbaum reports

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ADVERTISING people on the lookout for business may be considering an interesting new prospect - a high-profile brand with a recent history of failure but whose main competitor is now in serious trouble.

The job will not bring in much money - it could even lose other work - but it just might be the route to fame, fortune and political change. The potential client is the Labour Party, which is reviewing the way it uses professional advertising expertise.

This is virtually certain to mean the end in its current form of the Shadow Communications Agency, the network of sympathisers working in advertising, marketing and the media who have been deeply involved in party campaigning since 1986 and who have worked at cost price or free. It was at the heart of Neil Kinnock's drive to modernise Labour's image and its activities have ranged widely from the grand tasks of formulating presentational strategies to the nitty-gritty of producing party political broadcasts.

The rethink follows a controversy over the group's central role at the last election. Opponents in the party have attacked it for usurping strategic functions that properly belonged to politicians, although the charge is denied by the agency's supporters.

The current official position is only that the situation is under review. Labour's communications director, David Hill, says: 'Speculation about the Shadow Communications Agency is premature. It is perfectly reasonable to expect the Labour Party, having lost its fourth election in a row, to take stock, review its communications strategy and consider the best structure in the future. No decisions have yet been made.' However, according to inside sources, the framework likely to replace the Shadow agency is already clear, and is expected to be announced by Christmas or soon after.

It will involve splitting up the agency's functions - advertising, party political broadcasts, polling and qualitative research - and seeking sympathetic outsiders, paid or voluntary, to provide specific communications services on closely defined contracts. Politicians and party officials at Walworth Road would provide the strategic overview and ensure co-ordination.

This change is backed by those who feel that the agency had too much power, and that the politicians should be put back in charge. David Blunkett, the party's spokesman on health, argues: 'The experience of the last campaign indicates the need to review the role of external advisers. While it would be wrong to blame our defeat on the Shadow agency, they must accept some responsibility. I would welcome a move to break up the agency's functions and create a greater degree of political control and accountability.'

Once the new framework is formally approved, the party will pick the people it will look to for each function. Decisions on this will be taken next year, in time for the European Parliament elections in June 1994. The leading figures of the Shadow agency are unlikely to have central roles.

Philip Gould, who conceived and co-ordinated the agency, will probably continue as an adviser in a less pivotal capacity. Patricia Hewitt, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research and Mr Kinnock's former press secretary, will still be closely involved in policy development but is likely to be at one remove from campaigning.

Ms Hewitt says: 'For several years the Shadow agency mobilised between 200 and 300 highly talented Labour supporters in the advertising and PR worlds. I know that many of them feel very angry at the quite unjustified attacks on the agency, and some may feel reluctant to continue working with the party.'

Speculation in the advertising industry now focuses on whether Labour will seek a formal link with one agency, rather than relying on a network of supporters from different agencies. In October the advertising trade paper Campaign stated that Labour was inviting bids from interested agencies, a report denounced by Mr Hill as 'jumping the gun, to say the least'.

While some in the party may feel that appointing a specific agency would help reassert political control, it would also mean forfeiting the considerable advantages of the Shadow approach. The agency's supporters argue that Mr Gould's team brought together an enormous range of skill and experience at a small proportion of the commercial cost. One says: 'I can't think of a similar arrangement in the history of any party which has obtained such a scale and quality of work at such low cost.'

Nor will it be easy for the party to find, at an affordable price, a good agency that wants the account. Its only previous experience, in 1983, was not a success either from the party's viewpoint or the agency's. Wright and Partners found Labour a difficult client because of its unwieldy committee- based decision-making process. Its advertisements for the party were widely regarded as dull and ineffective and, already a small agency, it did not get any bigger as a result.

A former partner, Keith Smith, says: 'The connection with Labour did not do the agency any good. Some potential clients did not like it.' Mr Smith is now at TBWA Holmes Knight Ritchie, which, in contrast, benefited from handling the Liberal Democrats' advertising at the last election: 'This link hasn't harmed us but has increased our profile in a comparatively non-threatening way. What Labour needs is an agency of stature and size, but are any of the bigger agencies brave enough to do it? I doubt it.'

A possible candidate for a Labour agency might be BMP DDB Needham. Its chief executive, Chris Powell, and other staff members formed part of the Shadow agency's core group - but there are board members who are not Labour supporters and BMP has made it clear that there is no possibility of it being Labour's agency as a corporate body.

Robin Wight, chairman of WCRS and a former Conservative Party candidate, comments: 'There is a giant workload during the election campaign and I don't believe a small agency could cope. Bigger agencies would be worried about the views of clients. If I was a client, I would be very annoyed if I was competing for the time of people whose other time was spent on trying to damage my business by working for Labour.'

This analysis, although not the anti-Labour sentiment, is shared by Barry Delaney, who wrote many of the party's broadcasts in the late Eighties. His agency, Delaney Fletcher Slaymaker Delaney Bozell, is on the fringes of the top 20 but would be reluctant to take the account, even though it already has the Trades Union Congress as a client: 'If we were asked, I am sure we would consider it, but we might find it too difficult,' Mr Delaney says. 'The agency chairman, Winston Fletcher, did work for Labour but switched into the SDP and is now in political limbo. Bozell, our major US shareholder, does not like us to do political advertising.'

David Hill may already have an answer to this dilemma. The story in Campaign might have jumped the gun - but it has certainly done Labour a favour. Advertising agencies that would like the party's account will already have their proposals on his desk.

(Photograph omitted)