David Cameron’s Big Society still won’t fly – so the knives are out for former M&C adman Steve Hilton

UK coalition PM David Cameron tried to relaunch his ‘Big Society’ idea today, frustrated that his opponents (and some of his supporters) regard this as a fig leaf to conceal the fact that the Tories in the Government want to replace public spending with voluntary work.

This is broadly the view taken by the advertising industry which, in the form of the Advertising Association, has rebuffed cabinet office minister Francis Maude’s attempts to get it to do ads for nothing.

Which some might see as a bit unsporting towards PM Cameron (a former PR man for Michael Green at Carlton Television) and Big Society inventor, former M&C Saatchi adman and now Cameron’s director of strategy Steve Hilton.

Hilton, still firmly ensconced in Downing Street, is loathed by many Tories because he paddles around barefoot and specialises in ‘blue sky thinking.’ They probably also don’t care for him much because he’s a low born son of Hungarian immigrants (in their eyes) who managed to win a place at Oxford to study politics, philosophy and economics (PPE), the course of choice for most of Britain’s leading politicians.

In short he’s not a toff like most of them are and they don’t like being told what to do by someone they regard as an oik with dangerous ideas.

But Hilton is a fearsomely well-connected oik. He’s married to Rachel Whetstone, a long-time Tory apparatchik who’s now the head PR honcho at Google. Whetstone has balls of steel having survived the faux pas of once conducting an affair with Samantha Cameron’s stepfather (Sam doesn’t like her).

And Cameron seems to depend on his advice even though the Big Society, his biggest piece of advice, is causing the Government no end of trouble.

On the face of it there seems nothing wrong with this notion: it’s a bit like voting for your mother and apple pie. Why shouldn’t people volunteer more like good citizens? And wouldn’t it be nice if those pesky bankers gave more of their ill-gotten loot to good causes? Actually they could just pay more tax but that’s another issue.

But Cameron’s government has cut off charities and voluntary groups at the knees by allowing thuggish communities secretary Eric Pickles to slash local authority spending by around a quarter, meaning that the groups who Cameron says he wants to support have no money now, whatever goodies he may promise them in the future.

So Hilton’s big idea – the Big Society – has foundered on realpolitik, which he should have known all about, being a protege of Maurice Saatchi’s at M&C Saatchi. Maurice’s whole career is a testament to sniffing which way the wind is blowing.

But, as far as I can see, Hilton never actually toiled at M&C on anything other than the Conservative Party. If he’d had to work on the likes of Foster’s or British Airways he might have learned something of marketing reality.

His one contribution to adverts was the dreadful and utterly counter productive ‘Demon Eyes’ campaign which M&C stupidly aimed at Tony Blair in the 1997 general election, which Blair won with a huge majority of course.

Campaign, incidentally, voted this its campaign of the year, but never mind.

So maybe Hilton’s not even as clever as his enemies think he is.

Any half-competent agency planner could tell you that there’s no point in launching a big idea – Big Society – unless there’s some chance of persuading its customers, charities, voluntary groups and local authorities, that there’s something in it for them.

The Government is now running about like a bunch of headless chickens, trying to chuck money at the project. But you do this first.

And the only thing keeping Steve Hilton in the job is that his oppo on the news side at No 10 Andy Coulson has had to resign and is in much more trouble than he is.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.