DWP creates a monster. Really. Louise Farrand addresses the issue of Workie


Here in Reward towers, we’ve had many theories about where Ros Altmann has been since she was appointed pensions minister back in May.

Our ideas got more creative as our collage of rejection letters grew (Interview? No thanks. Come and speak at our event? Far too busy. Comment on an article? Yes! And then actually no).

We speculated: was the Baroness shut away in DWP ministerial key messaging training? Taking part in Hunted, the Channel 4 show where you have to disappear off the radar for a month (hiding out in the DWP archive, perhaps - nobody would find her there)? Keeping Julian Assange company in the Ecuadorian embassy, constructing Workieleaks?

They do say that the truth is better than fiction. But in a thousand years, we never dreamt that she’d be shelling out 8.5 million quid to animate a giant twerking Furby called Workie.

It’s very easy to criticise. But we really do believe that, while auto-enrolment is great, Workie is a bad idea. Here are the reasons why:

1. It’s expensive

The Workie campaign cost a reported £8.5m. We feel obliged to point out that this includes media spend (i.e. the cost of Workie skipping across the nation’s TV screens in primetime television slots) and that all government advertising campaigns must undergo a cost/benefit analysis.

With the DWP forecasting that auto-enrolment will result in people saving £15 billion each year, you can see how they might have justified the spend.

But at a time when benefits are being slashed for the disabled and vulnerable, critics are – rightly – questioning whether the money could have been better spent elsewhere.

Which brings us neatly to…

2. It’s out of touch

The Workie advert tries to emulate the friendly, accessible language of other successful advertising campaigns.

It achieves an overall sense of having been conceived by a pensions dinosaur who has crawled out of the deep, dark hole where they’ve been studying GMP equalisation for the last 85 years, scratching their head, gazing into the sunlight and saying, “Murgh? Low volatility beta quantitative impact smart longevity UFPLUS… advertising campaign? People? Whaa?”

The reaction among most actual “normal” people, thus far, has been bemused.

Let’s take a straw poll of two Facebook friends’ reactions (neither of whom has anything whatsoever to do with pensions):

Friend One posts the ad campaign on her wall with the caption: “Some things are beyond satire…”

Friend Two replies [quoting from Altmann’s statement]: “‘This is a fun and quirky campaign but behind it lies a very serious message’ - The phrase that 24th century historians came to associate with the majority of the crimes of the 21st century.”

Friend One responds: “Also I’m bemused by ‘physical embodiment of the workplace pension’ - sinister and difficult to believe in its existence?”

Which in turn, brings us to…

3. It sends the wrong message

Let’s look at the campaign’s message in some more detail. Turning first to the troubling description of the monster picked up by Friend One: ‘Physical embodiment of the workplace pension.’

How – how – does a purple creature which has been variously compared to a Monsters Inc character, a twerking Furby and a muppet – embody the decidedly un-fluffy, un-purple workplace pension?

The campaign’s messaging also reverses that of the DWP’s previous campaign to support auto-enrolment. “I’m in! We’re all in!” et cetera sent a message of solidarity. Watching it, the feeling was that only outliers would opt out of saving into a pension.

By contrast, Workie the purple monster is ignored by the public in the advert. The overall message, says David Robbins, senior consultant at Towers Watson, is “Look, everyone’s ignoring it; please don’t copy them.”

Workie most certainly will not be ignored – and if no publicity is bad publicity, auto-enrolment has just had an enormous boost. It has been fun to watch as consumer journalists cover Workie and get to grips with “the auto-enrolment” (as the Times put it).

Overall though, as David Brooks, technical director at Broadstone says: “The advert isn’t serious enough to hit home, it isn’t funny enough to amuse and it isn’t striking enough to resonate - it fails.”

We have to conclude that Workie is in fact a turkey. And it isn’t even Christmas.