Millennium pitch provokes storm

Advertising agencies are notorious whingers. When they lose an account the client made the wrong decision; when an account is resigned it is because the client does not understand the ‘creative proposition’ and when a pitch is mismanaged there are often tears.

We hear such stories most weeks, and with almost equal regularity dismiss them. So it would be easy to dismiss the furore surrounding the pitch for the 16m New Millennium Experience Company ad account.

The central complaint made to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and anybody else who would listen is that agencies weren’t given enough time to join the pitch list.

But as NMEC chief executive Jennifer Page said in a letter to the IPA last Friday: ‘I am surprised any advertising agency wishes to let it be known that it was unable to register its interest in our contract within seven days.’ And she has a point – at least five agencies including Leo Burnett, Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO and TBWA/Simons Palmer did meet the deadline.

But this is a pitch for a public body – a non departmental public body to give it its correct title – spending public National Lottery money and ultimately responsible to the Minister without Portfolio Peter Mandelson.

Yet the public isn’t allowed to know who is on the shortlist or who will make the final decision on an appointment. It will be made by the ‘Procurement Committee’ but the identity of the members will not be revealed until after an agency has been appointed, according to an NMEC spokesman.

But as we reveal in this week’s issue, M&C Saatchi, despite previous denials, has been working with the NMEC since February. And although it has produced no work for the NMEC, there was no formal tender for that advisory role.

At the same time, two M&C partners Bill Muirhead and Jeremy Sinclair, both with a 20 per cent stake in the agency, are among NMEC’s most trusted advisors.

Muirhead is acting communications director at NMEC and has been working with the body since February (MW February 14). A spokesman says Muirhead has been ‘advising on advertising and marketing’ but has played no role in the agency shortlist selection. Sinclair has been advising on the NMEC’s corporate logo and overall image.

There is no suggestion that there has been any improper action, but there is a potential conflict of interest. Obviously rival agencies would like M&C knocked off the list even before the pitch.

But there are genuine concerns about how a public body, which over its lifetime will receive an estimated 400m of Lottery money, is conducting one of its first competitive tenders. And they need to be addressed.

News, page 7

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