Claire Beale on Advertising: The adman with a £400m public warchest

Billy, Gripper, Books, Jakki, Mundy, Lupe. Regular kids. You wouldn’t sweat if you found them hanging around your street corner. Even Gripper, the tough one, looks more teen heart-throb than estate vigilante.

They’re the stars of a new 22-part drama series, Thmbnls, delivered weekly to your mobile phone. It’s a drama with a pretext, a clear social message: use a condom, reduce teenage pregnancy. And it’s the latest ground-breaking campaign from one of the country’s biggest advertisers.

The advertiser in question is big, yes, pumping out hundreds of ads every year. But if you don’t work in adland you’ve probably never heard of it. Yet its work has undoubtedly shaped your views on a myriad of social and cultural issues. Now it’s just appointed a new chief executive and adland is braced for change.

The advertiser is the COI, or the Central Office of Information, its new chief is adman Mark Lund and it seems that Thmbnls is merely a taste of things to come; Lund has his sights on building digital bridges between government and citizens. The COI, you see, is the body that handles all the government’s advertising. Its £400m marketing war chest is used to provide public information on everything from the dangers of drugs to healthy eating, adult education and income support.

Now, Lund says, the COI will ensure the government is making the best use of new technology to communicate with the public. No doubt someone somewhere is already plotting a Thmbnls for the over 30s. The point is that it’s harder and harder for even an advertiser with a war-chest as big as the COI’s (£160m) to cut-through these days; expect the government to be leading the way in finding new channels to target specific audiences. Thmbnls is just the beginning.

Lund is an interesting choice to lead this charge. He is a founder of what is quite possibly London’s poshest ad agency, Delaney Lund Knox Warren; good breeding and an expensive education are in the agency’s DNA. Ironically it’s also an agency most famous for making advertising that by-passes the creative sensitivities of adland’s luvvies and aims unashamedly straight for mass appeal: Halifax’s singing staff, Morrisons, Vauxhall. It’s a formula that grew DLKW to an agency with a reported price tag of £38m when it sold to Creston in 2005, just five years after its launch. So Lund made a lot of money.

Still, with recession in full swing and the public sector the safest place to be at the moment, you might understand why Lund was tempted out of ad agency life to get inside Whitehall and become one of the most powerful clients in adland. What’s more, the COI is a well-oiled machine, handling advertising and marketing for some of the most complex and sensitive social messages with a sureness and at a volume few other advertisers could manage.

As chief, Lund will tread a delicate political line – working on government social policy without being seen to use public money to promote party politics is a constant concern.

Lund will have another political line to tread, too. As an adman plunging straight across the client/agency divide he will have to work hard to demonstrate his own impartiality. DLKW, like almost every other significant agency in London, works on COI accounts and is frequently trying to win new COI business. The COI is a highly coveted client and its pitches are keenly contested; joining the COI roster is, in effect, a Kitemark of an agency’s professionalism and capability. Lund will have to demonstrate quickly and unequivocally his even-handedness in his dealings with agencies that, until last week, were his fierce rivals.

Mind you, it’s fair to say that Lund has honed his patriarchal credentials as chairman of the Advertising Association and has become a well respected player on adland’s industry stage. He certainly comes into the COI job armed with a reputation for integrity and decency. Agencies, though, will be watching closely.