Journalist, Author & Anglican Priest

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A Quick Drink With… Allan Biggar

What do you think of the advertising business, Allan?

I think creative agencies and their clients work very hard, but they’re deluding each other most of the time.

So you think advertising is a waste of money?

When he ran Unilever, Niall Fitzgerald famously used to say that he knew half his adverising spend was wasted, he just didn’t know which half…

That was Lord Leverhulme actually…

Whatever. Don’t be a pedant. The point is not much has changed, despite sophisticated tracking and marketing innovations on and offline.

Who’s to blame then? Clients or agents?

Both, I reckon. They’re not honest with each other. Or with themselves. A mate told me the other day of a mega-client hiring a big ad agency, who worked their way through several hundred thousand pounds recently with acres of account handlers and more vice-presidents of this and that from the client that you could wave a memory stick at – and they came up with something quite rubbish, but the CEO still happily said “Thank God we had them on board”.

That sounds like a pretty spivvy agency to me…

Management consultancies are just as bad. I saw the work of one recently, which had been hired to do a restructuring at a relatively small plc. Half a million pounds later and they came up with a report, 80 per cent of which I swear was culled from the internet. I’m not exaggerating – literally whole lumps cut-and-pasted from others with no value added at all.

The client must have been furious.

Actually, they said they were delighted. They’d hired a great firm and apparently eveything was right with the world.

Stupid client too then. What’s to be done?

Clients should look behind the big brand-name advisers at what they’re actually buying. And the big consultancies need to be called out on whether they’re selling anything valuable or just cranking up billable hours to pay for the expensive machinery they’ve become.

Your advice to clients and agents in a sentence?

Stop living in mutual delusion, stop spending probably literally billions of dollars globally on something of at least questionable value.

Okay. You started your career in politics with the Liberal Party. Who’s going to win the next General Election?

Nobody.

Seriously?

Bad news for everyone – especially Cameron, Clegg, Milliband and Farage. They’re all screwed. That’s not to say that one of them won’t win a working majority and be Prime Minister. But, guys, you won’t “win”.

Why the  “air-quotes”?

Because the “winner” will be the last man standing – and it will be a man – after an election at which few will vote and he’ll just be the least bad choice. Okay for him, I suppose – he’ll still get the house, the title and the security detail.

But if no one wins, who loses?

We do. The voters lose. What a choice. In fact no choice at all.

Is that a Hobson’s Choice?

It’s certainly an unenviable choice. How did it come to this in a world of social media and mass public action?

Perhaps the political system is bust?

We’ve heard that before and nothing has happened – see the SDP, the Orpington by-election et al. But it really is bust. We live in an undemocratic country, in that our political system doesn’t offer choice, at least not one we can vote for positively.

Is it time for a revolution?

Or maybe a Very British Coup, where we the public take over. Abolish party politics and give people real choice. Political parties come from an age before social media. Views aren’t aligned today into social categories – give people real choice and we might get the government we want.

Will that happen?

Probably not, because the turkeys in Parliament won’t vote for Christmas. But it may come quicker than we think when an issue captures the imagination of the public and our government is unable to deal with it. The fuel protests of a decade ago nearly did, but since then a lot has evolved online. Today it could be anything. My guess is that it could be something around healthcare.

So your message to politicians is what?

Watch out, guys. Enjoy the limos while you can.

Those’ll be the limos we pay for?

Exactly.

Allan Biggar was talking to George Pitcher, Chairman of Jericho Chambers, over a glass of mineral water with a hint of elderflower cordial at the Ivy Club. 

George Pitcher

George Pitcher

George Pitcher is a writer, independent public ethics consultant and an Anglican priest. He is a journalist by background, having been an award-winning Industrial Editor of The Observer during the years of the Thatcher government’s privatisation programme and a columnist and commentator on a wide range of newspapers and broadcast media.

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