M&C Millennium win stirs industry anger

NMEC’s decision to hire M&C to its 16m task has sparked questions about the pitch process.

They were the most prepared, and had done the most work in advance.” With that statement, and completely without irony, a spokesman for the New Millennium Experience Company justified the appointment of M&C Saatchi to the 16m advertising account to promote Peter Mandelson’s dome last Friday.

But it will not come as a surprise to the losing agencies – or indeed to anybody who has followed this story for the past two months – that M&C was so well prepared. For two of its five partners, Bill Muirhead and Jeremy Sinclair – each with a 20 per cent stake in the agency – have been advising the Government quango on its advertising, marketing and corporate identity for the past six months.

Neither Muirhead nor Sinclair played any part in shortlisting the five agencies which pitched – Ogilvy & Mather, TBWA Simons Palmer, Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO, Leo Burnett and M&C Saatchi – but Muirhead has been advising on advertising and marketing issues.

And last month (MW July 31) the NMEC admitted that M&C had had an advisory role, on a voluntary unpaid basis, since Muirhead was first hired as acting communications director, again unpaid, in February. Sinclair became involved in the project in May.

It was not until 5pm last Friday that the quango announced that Muirhead and Sinclair had “stepped down” as advisers on June 16 – two weeks before the tender for the advertising contract was advertised in the European Journal. But that has surprised the other agencies involved and, indeed, some people within the NMEC itself.

In the past two months Marketing Week has spoken to the NMEC press office virtually every day, often about the potential conflict of interest represented by its acting communications director holding a 20 per cent stake in one of the advertising agencies pitching for its 16m advertising account, and not once, even when originally confirming the appointment of M&C last Friday, did it mention the fact that Muirhead and Sinclair had “stepped down”.

An NMEC spokesman said four weeks ago (MW July 31): “He (Muirhead) has attended board meetings and given advice on advertising and marketing.” He did not say Muirhead had “stepped down” .

Now, having unofficially let it be known before the pitch that the involvement of the two partners gave M&C an unfair advantage, the losing agencies are openly angry, believing they have had their time wasted. Some complain that the members of the tender panel did not read their submissions.

The final decision to appoint M&C was taken by Minister without Portfolio Peter Mandelson on the recommendation of the “procurement committee” or tender panel. It included NMEC chief executive Jennifer Page; implementation director Jeff Hawkins; company secretary Michael Brainsby; commercial director Kevin Johnson (who has not yet formerly been appointed); as well as two non-executive directors BT corporate communications director Ian Ash and former Channel 4 boss Michael Grade.

The advertising consultant Peter Miller is understood to have played a role in the original shortlisting of the agencies. M&C could make as much as 1.8m in fees from the account. The NMEC says total agency fees paid to M&C, the sales promotion agency Claydon Heeley and the media buyer Optimedia will be between 2.2m and 2.5m. But at least one other agency group costed its proposals at just 2m.

But there have been complaints that the whole process was unnecessarily truncated, not allowing agencies the time to submit tenders. Last month the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising complained to the NMEC about the lack of time given to apply. But NMEC’s Page responded: “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.”

But even those agencies which did pitch were given just one hour in which to explain their ideas and outline a financial framework for the account. There was no full creative pitch for an account which will have to capture the imagination of a population, that at the moment cares little about a 500m exhibition in London.

It is now understood that the independent Advisory Committee on Advertising (ACA) – used by the Central Office of Information and other public and government bodies to oversee appointments to government accounts – was not consulted by the NMEC. It is believed to be the first time a public body has not consulted the ACA.

“The tender panel was very impressed by the innovative and practical solutions offered by M&C Saatchi,” says a statement from Page. “All the bidders showed great understanding, creativity, flair and imagination.

“M&C Saatchi was the agency that offered by far the most practical and commercial responses to the challenges ahead and understood the limited time-scale. The tender panel therefore unanimously agreed on the choice of M&C Saatchi.”

Arguments over the millennium celebration have already split two Government cabinets. Last Friday’s decision to appoint M&C has left the ad industry just as divided.

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