SBHD: To advertising agencies trying to win a piece of its lucrative business, the European Commission is a monolithic institution wrapped up in red tape, more concerned with price than quality of work. And unlike conventional clients, which can draw up a shortlist of approved agencies, it has to consider every pitch.
The hit song, “Hanging on the telephone”, by Seventies band Blondie should be the European Union’s anthem rather than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, suggests one advertising agency after trying to win business from Brussels.
You hear a lot of Beethoven while hanging on the phone to the European Commission as operators try, and usually fail, to get hold of the person you want.
Sadly, in the experience of many advertising agencies the hackneyed, and perhaps particularly British, vision of the EC as a Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare bears more than a little resemblance to the truth.
Some of the agencies involved in the current pitch for an £18m campaign to promote the use of olive oil throughout the community look on the EC as the administrative equivalent of a black hole – sucking in light and information, while acting as the antithesis of the agencies’ view of themselves as open, flexible and fast-moving organisations.
The olive oil business was put out to tender last July with an October deadline for submissions. UK agencies pitching include Saatchi & Saatchi, J Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather. But there are understood to be around 150 other agencies from across the European Union which are also pitching for the same account.
The agencies sent in their postal pitches and waited – and waited. The next thing they heard, around February, was that the pitches were being translated into the relevant community languages. One pitch was written in Danish, a language not known by anyone on the committee charged with choosing the agency. Now it appears the list has been cut down before a final selection is made.
This only reinforces the view of the EC as a monolithic institution wrapped in red tape, which holds out lucrative prizes to agencies only to set traps of devilish complexity before appointing the chosen few on criteria so bizarre as to be virtually random. Few agencies concerned have a clear idea of who to contact about their pitch or when a decision will be reached.
“I don’t think we’ve been able to crack how to work with the EC at all,” says one senior source in a large multinational agency.
This is by no means entirely the fault of the European Commission, of course. The agencies could make more of an effort than they do. But even among those agencies that have a system for dealing with EC work – not all do and many have no idea how to approach the EC for business at all – there is widespread dissatisfaction with the process which is deemed too opaque and unwieldy.
To pitch for an account agencies have to read the daily supplement to the Official Journal of the European Communities (OJ) to find out what is available. Some agencies do not even know of its existence. The European Association of Advertising Agencies (EAAA) will do this for its members; some agencies laboriously scan the OJ themselves, but it’s not always easy to tell from the officialese in which the journal is written whether any advertising will be involved.
“It’s train spotter stuff. You get your flask out and pick your way through it,” says Justin Cernis, partner at Mellors Reay & Partners.
To win EC business the agencies must satisfy the EC that they are reputable and financially sound. It is a process that seems designed to trip them up.
Last year PR company, Hill & Knowlton reportedly lost out on some business funded by the EC to represent the tourism account of the islands of the South Pacific. This was because it converted its proposed payment of Fijian dollars into European Currency Units, the official currency of the EU, at a rate different from that printed in the OJ. This is not allowed and despite the reportedly unanimous vote of the tourist council board in favour of the agency, it had to withdraw.
There is also a feeling that pitches are judged solely on financial terms with the cheapest likely to come out on top. “The EU is interested in money. It wants to know the number of people working on the business and the number of hours worked, but it doesn’t make allowances for the quality of the work,” says one agency source.
The problem is that the whole system has to be fair and has to be seen to be fair. Any agency wanting to pitch has to be given due consideration. The EC cannot behave like a normal client and draw up a shortlist of agencies on the basis of its own knowledge and experience. Instead it has to operate by committee.
Much the same process applies to accounts put up for public tender, though most organisations are likely to have a far better idea of which agencies are suitable for the business than the EC does. Public bodies, utilities and GATT bodies, including central governments and health authorities, must advertise contracts formally in the OJ if their value is above a certain level.
The threshold is between £96,000 and £4m depending on what is on offer. So advertising contracts, such as the Welsh Development Agency’s have to be published in the OJ. However, some of the same problems arise with public tenders as with EC business. Leagas Delaney chief executive Bruce Haines says: “We are asked to present our thoughts in a tender document but we end up working in a vacuum. It’s also a process that’s not very fair to the client. I consider a sensible shortlist to be three or four agencies at the most. Then everyone knows they have a fair chance of winning. They all throw their heart and soul into the process and the client sees a true reflection of the agency’s skills,” he says.
Like others, Haines suggests the quibbles over currency conversions and similar bureaucratic details are ways for the EC to arrive at a shortlist as quickly as possible while still being seen to be transparent and fair in its selection process.
He says a European version of the UK’s Advertising Agency Register might usefully be adopted, which would keep show- reels from agencies and identify client conflicts.
Others suggest the EC could usefully draw up a shortlist of approved agencies much like that used by the UK’s Central Office of Information. As it is, the EAAA sees one of its key roles as finding a point within the EC for the shops to deal with.
Of the EC’s 23 directorate generals – the departments that run everything from agriculture to health – only DGX, responsible for the EC’s information, communications, culture and audio-visual media, runs a system similar to the COI.
However, it is not a roster which agencies must be on to be selected for business, but a list of approved agencies to which DGX can turn and inform about tenders, although information about tenders must also be in the public domain.
The other 22 DGs follow the standard procedure of putting out the contracts for tender in the Official Journal, then sit back and wait for the bids to flood in.
“It’s always tough for the agencies since there aren’t many professionals – in marketing or advertising – in the EC. It’s difficult to establish good relations,” says Anthony Arke, EAAA director of external relations.
“It’s difficult for agencies to establish good contacts in the EC – people move from one DG to another, which is good for their careers, but it’s not the same way that advertising and marketing departments work in companies,” says Arke.
The EAAA wants the EC to behave more like a conventional client and is trying to persuade it to pay for submissions as well as to return work submitted. Like the agencies, it wants the EC to concentrate more readily on the quality of the work submitted rather than just the price.
Advertising agencies are not alone in their criticism: the International Consultants Organisation acting for the PR industry recently had a meeting with EC officials to present its concerns, ranging from tight budgets to lack of consistency between directorates. Their complaints were gathered after two years’ research into the problems arising from working with the EC. The closure of the EC’s Berlaymont headquarters has confused the situation further. The DGs are now dotted around Brussels, although the building is scheduled to reopen within the next 12 months.
But the EC still regards itself as no different from any other potential client, although it will admit that agencies “have to be prepared to be patient”.
“To give an average time-scale for how long it takes the EC to appoint an agency would be misleading. It depends on the urgency of the work,” says Bill Martin, head of unit at DGX.
The EC has no central budget for advertising, nor can it provide information on how much money it spends on advertising each year. That information can only be provided by talking to the individual DGs and breaking down their spending on publicity. “It depends what you mean by advertising,” says one official.
Martin does not accept that the EC draws up unrealistically long shortlists, nor that the large multinational agencies – particularly those with Brussels offices – have an advantage over small agencies. “The EAAA and similar organisations can lobby the EC to find out what’s going on, but if an average-sized agency has access to the OJ then it has just as much chance as anyone else,” he says.
He maintains that many of the horror stories about dealing with the EC are exaggerated, and he is quick to stress that it is not a faceless monolith. “We are not remote. If there are advertising agencies that think they are not getting a fair crack of the whip then I am happy to hear from them – preferably in writing.”
The EAAA – perhaps not surprisingly – sees advertising and the very existence of the European Union as inextricably linked, but if the EC cannot even arrange what should be a fairly simple system to advertise the advantages of living in the European Union to its own citizens, then it’s in serious trouble.