The UK Government's public service and other marketing has been overseen since January 2014 by the Government Communication Service, itself a successor to the short-lived Government Communication Network. Previously, for more than 65 years, it fell under the control of COI (or Central Office of Information as it was once known). A body of non-political civil servants, this acted as the client on behalf of governmental departments to coordinate largescale marketing initiatives and liaise with advertising agencies. However, advertising expenditure increased dramatically under Labour government in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the result that the COI had become the country's highest-spending marketer by 2009. David Cameron's Coalition Government was quick to announce drastic cutbacks in spend, followed by a review of its marketing decision-making process. As a result, the COI was shut down at the end of March 2012, with much of the client-side decision-making handed back to individual departments. It was replaced by a new and much smaller board of oversight, as well as a centralised procurement organisation.
Selected UK Government advertising
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Government Communication Service
|open.gov.uk||Ofsted - Education Standards|
|Inland Revenue||The British Monarchy|
|Department of the Environment||Health & Safety Executive|
|Department for Education & Employment||Data Protection|
|Home Office||Department of Health|
|Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)||Ministry of Defence|
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Free for all users | see full profile for current activities: The Central Office of Information was formed in 1946 as a replacement to the wartime Ministry of Information. Until then the Ministry had been responsible for deciding what aspects of governmental policy would be communicated to the public, but that year this job was handed back to each individual department. The role of the COI was to coordinate the release of information to the public to achieve maximum effectiveness and to handle liaison with external marketing companies in order to avoid each department having to employ its own specialist. At the time this was largely a matter of commissioning public information films about health, safety and so on, as well as news releases to the media of the day.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the role of the COI mushroomed and the agency found itself increasingly hard-pressed to serve the numerous departments requiring its services. There were two main factors. Britain's growing importance as an exporter led to a huge demand for promotional material to be used abroad, while the emergence of television created a hugely new influential new medium. During the 1960s in particular, free-to-air government-sponsored public information films were in huge demand as broadcasters sought ways of filling the large empty spaces in their daytime schedules. PIFs, as they were known, also benefited hugely from the involvement of professional agencies. TV commercials for road safety in particular - Green Cross Code, "Clunk Click" and so on - remain among the most memorable ads of the period. (Around 300 COI public information films from the 1950s to the 1980s are now available commercially on DVD here).
During the 1980s and 1990s, the COI was gradually turned into a funded service, working to hire, and it played an instrumental part in the Conservative government's privatisations of BT and British Gas. However this still didn't resolve the problems of its intricate and tangled bureaucracy and in 1992 control of COI passed from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, responsible for government finances, to the Cabinet Office which coordinates the main governmental departments. At the end of 1995, the COI lost its monopoly when governmental departments were allowed to manage their own marketing. At this point many observers predicted that the agency would gradually fade away, as government departments took charge of their own marketing. However a wholesale review of the organisation in 1996 led to the dismantling of several unneeded layers of bureaucracy. After that, former packaged goods marketer Carol Fisher oversaw a remarkable transformation of the organisation, turning itself into one of the country's most respected, as well as its biggest, advertisers. The agency rebranded as COI Communications in July 2000.
However a cloud appeared on the horizon in late 2001 when the Department for Transport announced it would break away from COI to set up its own roster of marketing agencies. Shortly afterwards the government was widely criticised for the amount of taxpayers' money that was being spent on advertising. In 2003 the DfT returned its media buying to the fold following an audit by the government's Advisory Committee on Advertising, which reported that COI-run campaigns were more cost-effective than advertising handled directly by government departments. At the end of the year, another commission suggested guidelines for shifting government spend away from national media and towards regional media where it is more likely to be effective, and the Independent Review of Government Communications report encouraged all aspects of government communication to be centrally coordinated, greatly strengthening COI's position.
In early 2004, COI was the first advertiser to make a major commitment to multicultural advertising in the UK when it created a roster of seven agencies specifically to target black and other ethnic groups. Multicultural advertising is already a significant sector of the US ad industry but is in its infancy in most other countries. Yet inter-departmental rows appeared to have resurfaced in 2005 when the Home Office took steps to seek "better value" for its marketing budget, and began drawing up its own independent roster of agencies.
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