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Politics UK Government Marketing

The UK government needs to trust agencies with its messaging again

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By Tracey Barber, Global chief transformation and growth officer

January 17, 2024 | 8 min read

Havas Creative’s Tracey Barber believes the government needs some help with its messaging from the UK’s burgeoning creative sector.

UK parliament

As we head into another election year – PM Rishi Sunak has finally confirmed that he won’t drag it out into 2025 – comms from all our political parties will be massively ramped up. The budget cap for UK election campaigns has just been lifted from £19m to £34m, while spending in the US is expected to reach nearly $16bn by election day on November 5.

With a total of 40 elections taking place around the world next year, the campaigning noise will become a cacophony. Which leaves me wondering, whatever happened to the thoughtful, effective and memorable government advertising that used to give agencies the chance to make a real difference in society?

It will be 12 years on December 30 since the demise of the Central Office of Information, once responsible for all government communications but scrapped by the coalition as it moved to essential campaigns only.

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Leaving aside the role of agencies when it comes to election campaigning for political parties - and regardless of who wins power when it happens - are government communications currently using agencies enough or in the right way when it comes to general messaging to the Great British public?

Since the pandemic, when ads told us to ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ or the rather more prosaic spots advocated ‘Hands. Face. Space’ government comms have been somewhat conspicuous by their absence. Even the last government anti-smoking campaign was more than five years ago, and the Department of Health’s Change4Life to advocate for healthier diets was launched almost 10 years ago.

Yet, leaving aside any political persuasions, the UK is facing unprecedented times right now, from the climate crisis to a struggling NHS to rising energy costs amid the cost of living crisis more. Should the government be turning to the power of agencies more to help hammer home some messaging?

After all, it’s not like the government doesn’t have an advertising budget, and Whitehall departments spent £5.4m on Twitter ads alone in 2022. Still, it currently seems to be intent on selling its policies to the populace rather than for their greater good.

And we all know government advertising can perform a vital role, from stopping drink-driving, driving better health and enforcing fire safety campaigns to the recruitment of teachers and nurses. Shouldn’t some of that money be spent on truly innovative, creative campaigns to benefit the public?

Of course, government comms have changed vastly over the years and moved on from the plethora of public information films - those of a certain age can never forget the ads that told them to keep their lights bright and clean while cycling, to duck and cover in the case of a nuclear attack, Charley telling them never to talk to strangers or how to vote in a General Election. Those are long gone since the closure of the Central Office of Information in 2011, which made them all.

Now, instead, it’s more about different departments going it alone when it comes to comms under the umbrella of the government.

But perhaps it’s time that the government turned to the private sector to apply its wealth of knowledge and expertise to the public sector across all areas.

After all, our industry has unrivaled proprietary data insight systems, coupled with a second-to-none understanding of what makes the Great British public tick - who they are, their behaviors, hopes, dreams, likes, loves, dislikes and challenges.

We have the skills to predict the future and forecast trends. We can navigate and amplify messaging across all channels like no one else. We also understand the whole picture - not just the vision that any particular department is laser-focused on. We have the independence to challenge perceived wisdom, tired tropes and old ways of doing things. We can help pop some Whitehall bubbles.

More importantly, we have the expertise across myriad disciplines and audience silos.

As we move towards a new year, it’s the perfect time for the government to approach agencies differently. Rather than approaching us with their messaging and asking how we can amplify it, instead, it should be asking what messages it should be sending.

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2024 presents the perfect opportunity for the government to truly break the mould when it comes to comms with a more innovative approach like this and embrace the vast communities of talent in the creative industry to the advantage of everyone across the UK.

Then, regardless of who wins the next election, we’d all be winners.

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