The perils of an imperfect pitch

“Outrageous” was one agency chief’s simple, but compelling description of the 16m New Millennium Experience Company advertising pitch.

Needless to say, his was not the winning agency. Many, even in the ad industry, will be unsympathetic: losers always whinge, don’t they? Besides, M&C Saatchi deserved to win. It was, said the client, ‘the most prepared and had done the most work in advance’. And who could doubt that verdict? Bill Muirhead and Jeremy Sinclair, major shareholders in M&C, had worked tirelessly and for no visible reward – along with a host of other business celebrities such as Bob Ayling, Michael Grade and Sam Chisholm – to promote the interests of the NMEC. By contrast, what had Leo Burnett, Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO, TBWA Simons Palmer and Ogilvy & Mather got to show for themselves?

But if M&C was such a shoo-in, why bother holding a pitch at all? The reason is summed up in a letter to Marketing Week from chief executive Jennifer Page earlier this year: ‘There is nothing underhand about the way we have, and will continue to bring, the very best people on board the millennium project… rather we will continue to let contracts on the basis of the public sector control documents for the company.’ NMEC is, in part, a public body: after all, it explicitly relies on Lottery funds (rather a lot of them) and government patronage as well as business initiative.

All the same, there’s something a little strange about the pellucid pitch conditions. The call for other agencies to join the competition could have been advertised less obscurely; they could have been given more time. Then again, was it necessary to warn agencies off using inside information, such as contact with Mark McCormack, on pain of disqualification? M&C can have done little less in leaning on the combined wisdom of Messrs Muirhead and Sinclair, even if they did, unofficially, step down from their advisory capacity on June 16. Finally, if this was to be a transparent public competition, surely it would have made sense to employ the independent Advisory Committee on Advertising, which until now has been consulted on all public pitches?

None of this is to denigrate M&C, which has shown an adroitness in managing a changed political regime that might have surprised even Talleyrand. Its contacts, its ability to dig in and develop business are second to none. M&C would probably have won a more even-handed competition just as easily.

But that’s not the point. The conditions under which this vital pitch was conducted were less than model. Surely a body with pretensions to public responsibility should not be wilfully ignoring government advice?

News, page 7; News Analysis, page 19

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