The Central Office of Information is a rare breed in the advertising world: a strange hybrid of agency (for the Government) and client, whose total advertising spend in 2007 of £149.5m saw it shoot past Unilever to become the UK's second-largest advertiser, second only to the mighty Procter & Gamble.
The COI is the biggest producer of television and radio commercials in the UK, and the biggest radio advertiser: its 2007 radio spend of £42.9m was head and shoulders above furniture chain DFS in second place, which spent £7.6m.
Even less well-known is the COI's role in presenting the London 2012 Olympic bid, and organising the fireworks display on London's Embankment on New Year's Eve.
The COI's uniqueness was what attracted Mark Cross to his role of communications planning director, which he started full time in January, after a two-month transition period winding down his work for the IPA and his media consultancy, mc2.
The purpose of the COI is "to be the centre of marketing excellence on behalf of the Government", and Cross's role is to be the "glue" between the COI's many units.
He says: "I help join up the various teams. My role is to help coordinate the briefing process, and to focus the communications planning briefs. I then manage the pitch process, appoint the agencies, and manage ongoing campaigns."
Explaining the structure of the organisation is "bloody hard", says Cross. Essentially, however, the COI has around 600 employees, 12 of whom, including Cross, sit on the board.
On one side of the organisation is the client service, strategy and insight division; on the other are the four communications delivery units: interruptive media, interactive media, creative delivery, and news and PR.
Cross's first task was to get to grips with the diversity and breadth of the COI's role. He was familiar with the body as a client from his agency days, but had to make the transition from the private to the public sector.
Cross says: "The COI's role with the Government takes a while to understand; we work on behalf of an ever-changing roster of more than 200 government agencies, clients and departments. Every day there is something interesting, intriguing and surprising."
But the biggest difference between the COI and the Procter & Gambles of this world is that it has nothing to sell. Instead, the Government agency deals in "challenging" educational campaigns that address some of society's most controversial issues: binge-drinking, smoking and benefit fraud are all in a day's work.
Cross says: "We are not just after a transaction, we are trying to drive behaviour change. We also try to help people realise their potential - through recruitment, learning and skills - so there is important good news alongside the bad."
He adds: "I watch the news in a different light having joined the COI, simply because so many issues of the day are government-related, from kids' education to filling in your tax return on time."
One major project for this year, currently in its "formative stages", will be the Government's £75m anti-obesity marketing strategy. Cross says: "There is no easy solution to obesity: it is about encouraging people to change their lifestyles and their habits in a very positive way, rather than telling people not to do something."
The hard-hitting nature of the projects has made them a regular fixture at industry awards nights - so much so, that the COI, jointly with the IPA, is due to publish a "best of the best" of its IPA Effectiveness Awards this spring. Cross says: "Agencies agree that we have some of the most interesting briefs and the most challenging work."
One innovative campaign was the COI/Home Office with I-Level's "Talk to Frankbot" campaign, which used MSN Messenger to steer teenagers away from drugs. Cross says: "We created a dialogue on a difficult issue. The challenge then is how to apply that learning elsewhere; how we should use social media for engaging with difficult audiences who want to stay at arm's length from the Government."
So, the "evolving process" at the COI is about connection. Responding to today's converged environment, campaigns often involve three or four media agencies, several government departments, and up to seven different media channels. Cross says: "To get coherency for the consumer, the Government realises it needs to connect. There will be more enduring, collaborative campaigns."
Cross, "a late convert" to the client side of media, enjoys the benefits that a decade spent attending the IPA's Media Futures Group with the likes of Neil Jones, Jim Marshall and Steve Williams brings to his role on the other side of the fence. He says: "I know all the agency heads. And that is a good thing for them and a good thing for me."
2007: Communications planning director, COI
2004: Founder, mc2 and Informed Marketing
1996-2003: Founder and chief executive, PHD Compass
1993: Group media director, Cogent Elliot Group
1986: Joint media director, Young & Rubicam
1983: Media planner, DMB&B.
This article was first published on Media Week