Challenge of the Century

The Government’s Millennium Commission is poised to pick one of two consortia to run the exhibition marking Britain’s entry to the 21st century. The winner faces a colossal branding task, as well as the delicate handling of a politically-inspi

When the sun rises on Jan uary 1, 2000, it will first shine over the East Cape of New Zealand. And the Kiwis, naturally, are planning quite a party to celebrate.

The end of the second millennium could also be marked by the mass suicide of religious cult members, convinced the end of the world is nigh. Indeed, everyone has their own view of how the turn of the century should be celebrated.

For the British, the end of the 20th century will be marked by the biggest-ever New Year’s bash, with a year-long millennium festival encompassing projects running the length and breadth of the country to provide a vision for the future. For that, the whole concept of the millennium will have to be marketed – the brand will have to be created and sold to consumers who are at best apathetic and at worst ignorant of the “vision thing”.

By the end of this month, the Millennium Commission, set up in 1993 to co-ordinate the festival with an estimated 1.6bn of National Lottery funding, will announce the winner of the franchise to design, build and run the Millennium Exhibition. The exhibition will run for a year and seek to attract up to 15 million visitors.

The commission has shortlisted two candidates to run the exhibition. One is a consortium of six firms called M2000 and jointly headed by accountancy firm Touche Ross and media owner MAI. The other is the brainchild of design and brand specialists Imagination. Granada pulled out of the bidding in November. It had other things to concentrate on, namely bid for the Forte hotel group.

M2000 proposes Greenwich, south London, as the site of the exhibition, while Imagination has proposed Birmingham’s NEC. The successful consortium will receive more than 100m of grants from the commission and will be expected to match the money pound for pound from its own sources. Both are cagey about their plans until the winner is announced in the next three weeks. It is a win that will open the door to commercial sponsorship, licensing and merchandising opportunities.

The exhibition will be the crowning achievement of the Millennium Commission. The Government hopes the festivities will enliven the nation and give it a renewed sense of purpose.

Imagination marketing director Ralph Ardill says: “The millennium is a fundamental turning point – a perfect catalyst to reflect where we’ve come from and our position for the future. It should bring renewed optimism.”

The idea of turning the year 2000 into a national festival to celebrate British achievement was considered as something of a coup for Prime Minister John Major. It would galvanise the British, shake them out of their cynicism and give them back some pride in the country. It first appeared in the Conservative Party’s 1992 election manifesto as a populist political initiative.

“We hope the exhibition will foster pride, and revitalise feelings about what this nation is capable of,” says Ardill. This reflects the words of former heritage secretary Stephen Dorrell, that the millennium projects will be “lasting monuments to the achievements and aspirations of the UK”.

Whichever consortium wins, it is clear that it faces a daunting marketing challenge. The exhibition is due to open on New Year’s Eve 1999, and the job of communicating the details of the event, as well as what it stands for, is huge. As the public face of the Government’s Millennium push, the way the exhibition communicates its message will be essential to the success of the festival.

It is perhaps the biggest communications task in the UK since the launch of the National Lottery in 1994 – and arguably tougher, due to its nebulous nature. Imagination’s background suggests the company will be well placed to develop a branding approach. But the M2000 bid looks more complete, with all its members in place. Although the appointment of advertising agencies may be a year or two away, agencies could be asked to join the consortia in the way many aligned themselves with groups bidding to run the lottery.

The Millennium Commission will distribute funds in three categories – the exhibition, capital building projects, and individual grants. But unlike the other four good causes which benefit from lottery cash – arts, heritage, sports and charities – the Millennium Commission has a peculiarly political brief, it is the only one required to have two Cabinet ministers sitting on the funding allocation board.

Chairman, heritage secretary Virginia Bottomley, and board member, Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine – or whoever sits in their seats after the next General Election – will take key decisions as to how the cash is spent. Inevitably, it will lead to accusations of political bias in funding decisions.

The Millennium events are meant to be as significant for Britain as the Festival of Britain in the Fifties or the Great Exhibition in the 19th century. It will demonstrate to the populace and the rest of the world the heights of British ingenuity, design and architecture. But one commissioner, former Times editor Simon Jenkins, has already slammed applications for grants as being “slightly worthy and slightly predictable”. He was said to be disappointed over the lack of follies, quirkiness and fizz in the funding bids.

As well as the main exhibition, the commission will hand out an estimated 50m to each of 12 “landmark” projects. Other funds will go to smaller, community-based projects. Projects will be expected to at least match the funding they receive from the commission. The money will be doled out in three rounds, each intended to distribute 350m. Further personal grants worth 4m a year will be available for nominated individuals.

So far, five “landmark” projects have been promised funding – The Tate Gallery of Modern Art at London’s Bankside power station, the Earth Centre for sustainable technology in Doncaster, the Renaissance of Portsmouth Harbour, which has been pledged more than 40m, the Millennium Seed Bank, which will store the seeds of 25,000 endangered species, and a revamp for Hampden Park football stadium in Glasgow. Smaller projects include the “Woods on our Doorstep” which has received a 6.6m grant to create 200 new areas of woodland within walking distance of urban areas.

Whichever consortium wins will have to find a single strand that pulls all these diverse projects together. The job is a huge one, and could prove a giant PR boost for the Government in power at the time. It is also planned to return the feelgood factor to the nation – possibly the toughest relaunch in the history of marketing.

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