Category Archives: Advertising

Heard immunity: time for the media to probe a little deeper

To my knowledge, there have been no TV interviews with advertising professionals querying the communications effectiveness of the government’s Covid-19 strategy, despite the fact that it’s clear – judging by case numbers and deaths – that a significant proportion of the population is immune to the messages they’ve heard. If communicating a simple message effectively is just a matter of standing in front of a lectern and repeating a three-part slogan day after day, why do advertising agencies bother with all their expensive visuals, voiceovers and music – and research – when selling products?

We found out early on in the pandemic (from charts presented by the experts) that statistically the USA had more cases than we had, here in the UK. This must have been a huge shock. Then it occurred to some of us that maybe that was because the USA has a somewhat bigger population than the UK. It was only a matter of six weeks or so before we began to see “cases per 100,000” population figures being quoted. This was reassuring. I thought I detected the first signs of some statistical expertise being brought to bear.

And, sure enough, the charts eventually became more detailed and informative. But nowhere is there any statistical information about the effectiveness of government communications. I’m sure that behind the scenes questions such as the following are being asked, as they would be by any ad. agency worth its salt:

  • in terms of percentage measures, what levels of unprompted awareness of key safety messages (Hands – Face – Space, for instance) are being achieved?; how do they vary by demographic – age group/region/income level/etc.? how many people are fully cognisant of the lockdown rules applicable to their area?;
  • what are people’s attitudes to different messages? how many would like to see more detailed information (and of what kind)?; how has credibility been affected by events such as ministers’ infringing the rules?; what proportion of people would be happy with a stricter lockdown – and again, how do these attitudes vary by demographic? does everyone understand concepts such as ‘bubble’ and ‘Tier 4’? which of the communicators perform best in terms of getting the messages across?
  • what do we know – statistically – about how the virus is passed on?; what do those who’ve recovered have to say about how they think they caught it (some may be wrong, but patterns should emerge)?; how should such information modulate the weight, nature and targeting of government messaging?

But it seems there is very little interest amongst the media in wanting to see a mathematical measure of any of this. For communicators, these measures are the equivalent, for scientists, of developing vaccines. They should be utilised to set objectives and provide a means of making decision-makers accountable. Research results almost invariably challenge assumptions. Changes in awareness and attitude levels drive public perceptions … and actions. Advertising agencies and their marketeer clients spend over £20 billion each year, and consequently many millions on detailed measurement of these and other parameters, using the data generated to make subtle, or sometimes radical, changes to their ad. campaigns for myriad products and services.

Advertisers see the value of such statistical research in sales and profits. To my knowledge, they rarely call in scientists or politicians to advise them on how to launch a new brand or create high awareness of their product’s benefits. Many, many decades of research, both published and proprietary, inform their decisions.

We see all too clearly what is happening to people’s bodies. But what is going on in their minds?

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When I worked with Thatcher’s fixer: hard Left meets hard Right

I rarely worried about working in advertising, at the core of the capitalist system one might say, despite an undiluted working class upbringing in South Wales which perhaps ought to have made me reject the very idea of such a bourgeois career. My father was active in the trade union at Aero Zipp Fasteners, where he was employed for many years, taking part in a six-week strike at one point. Socialism has always been in my blood and indeed I was born in the year Welsh MP Nye Bevan founded the National Health Service. (I recently found out that my maternal grandmother was a delegate at the Labour Party conference in 1928).

Some doubts surfaced occasionally – for example, my conscience was pricked when I worked on ad. campaigns for a cigarette brand in the days when tobacco’s links with cancer were just becoming known; and I felt quite uneasy when confronted with the realities of animal slaughter at a client’s abattoir, though I admit my subsequent spell as a vegetarian lasted only three weeks. The point is, there were always compensations. Advertising paid the mortgage – and it soon became the devil I knew. You can’t beat the system. So I stayed.

But one particular experience brought home to me what I’d got myself into. Business wasn’t going too well at Washer Fox Coughlan, where I was a board director in our Soho-based London agency. Although we’d had successes, like relieving Saatchi & Saatchi of their IBM business, we felt we needed some kind of figurehead to raise WFC’s profile. We discussed maybe bringing in a ‘silver fox’ character – someone older, with contacts, who might make useful introductions. After many conversations on the grapevine and with headhunters, the right man came to the surface …

The silver fox in question was William Shelton. To give him his full title, he was William Shelton MP, Conservative member for Streatham, later to become Sir William on receiving his knighthood in 1989. His appointment as our Chairman was quite a coup: he’d already established a good reputation in the ad. business, first at CPV and later at high-profile agency Fletcher Shelton Delaney. Although Bill had held only junior posts in government, he was identified in the Tory party as being one of the “plotters” who undermined Prime Minister Edward Heath‘s position and, as one of her two campaign managers, helped secure Margaret Thatcher‘s leadership of the Conservative Party, as recorded in his obituary in the Daily Telegraph. (Ironically, it was more subterfuge – the stalking horse plot, led by Sir Anthony Meyer – that would eventually bring about the end of Thatcher’s own career. The Tories do seem to love their plots).

A sitting Member of Parliament, active in the House, Shelton was soon instrumental in attracting some high profile business to the agency. As is still the case with numerous MPs, he was in receipt of several income streams outside his work in the Commons. Bill’s role with us was just one more to be added to his entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It’s true that he did tend to rather dominate client meetings, often addressing his orations to an audience of potential customers who weren’t accustomed to being talked to as though they were in the Chamber at Westminster or at a constituency meeting. (I recall judicious use of a sharp tap on the shin under the table being made on more than one occasion). But frequently these were people with whom he had pre-established relationships, already attuned to his declamatory style.

So here was I, a Left wing boy from the Valleys, sitting on a company board in Central London, with one of the archest of arch Thatcher supporters. I hated Margaret Thatcher with a vengeance, and still do. Her anti-Left, deregulatory, privatising agenda wiped out key industries and devastated many local communities. If I’d once “got started” on this at work, my image amongst the rest of the board would have been shot to pieces. The trick was to keep my lip buttoned on the subject, something I managed to do pretty successfully at the agency, though sometimes down the pub with media sales people my true self would make an appearance.

My main focus was on getting the job done, on a day-to-day basis. Paying the mortgage, looking after the kids. These things always came first. But being such a close associate of someone who’d helped bring a character so vile as Thatcher to power was never out of my mind in meetings with him. On the other hand, Bill himself was charming company and we got on very well. He took me for a meal at the Members Tea Room at the House of Commons where I probably saw more famous faces in that one hour than I’ll have seen in the rest of my life!

He told me all about the way members of Thatcher’s “family”, as she called her inner circle, engineered the unseating of Edward Heath in February 1975. The key seems to have been that everything was done in utter secrecy. Soundings taken by Heath’s backers amongst Tory MPs didn’t reflect the true situation. Between them, her campaign managers succeeded in hoodwinking Heath’s team into a false sense of security. Thatcher thanked William Shelton in her press conference immediately after her election as Party leader. I never did get to the bottom of why he wasn’t appointed to the Cabinet, though he did get to be Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Education and Science; and it’s noteworthy that he was an enthusiast for Europe and opposed the appalling poll tax. Here’s a screenshot of William (left) with Airey Neave (who met a violent and tragic end at the hands of the INLA), shortly after their success in getting Thatcher elected Tory leader.

Eventually we linked up with a European seven-agency group, GGK, William retaining his role as Chairman for a time, whilst I became Executive Group Media Director. After a couple of years, I myself was victim of a plot (!) and left London for what turned out to be a much more pleasant and civilised life in Cambridgeshire.

Despite our political differences, I was sad to read of William’s ill fortune at the end of his life and his death from Alzheimer’s in 2003.



Image credits: Guards pack: Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History –

UK Parliament, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Rhymney Valley: Robin Drayton

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