Millennium Dome risks identity crisis

New Labour pledged its support to the design industry almost as soon as it arrived in Downing Street. But nobody could have predicted that the support was going to be quite so literal.

To date, the looming millennium celebration has employed at least 15 design agencies in various capacities, most recently Lambie Nairn @ Brand Union (MW January 22) hired by the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC) to create identities for the Dome, for future Dome sponsors and for millennium merchandise. Sources say the Brand Union’s creative director Martin Lambie-Nairn was approached to take a seat on the NMEC board, although this is denied by the company.

As a result of Marketing Week’s investigation into the appointment of the Brand Union shadow culture secretary Francis Maude has tabled House of Commons questions asking whether the contract was properly tendered and its value. No tender was advertised in the Official Journal of the European Community (OJEC), where all tenders for Government business worth more than 150,000 should be listed.

Last December, the NMEC denied it was looking for an outside design agency to create a logo, saying it had enough creative talent on board with ad agency M&C Saatchi, which has the 16m advertising account, and Stephen Bayley, its then 80,000 a year creative director (MW December 11 1997).

But the in-house identities the NMEC developed were deemed “unviable”, according to industry sources. Lambie-Nairn, who has worked with NMEC non-executive director Michael Grade, was asked to pitch. So was Philip Ley, managing director of the Branded consultancy, who previously worked with the NMEC deputy chairman Sam Chisholm at BSkyB. According to Bayley, who controversially quit the Dome project three weeks ago, a third agency – Smith & Milton – also pitched.

“The value of the identity development work is 50,000,” says an NMEC spokesman. However, industry sources say the payment, for an ongoing project requiring the employment of between five and ten Brand Union staff, is well below the industry norm.

For example, to employ four staff from Sampson Tyrrell Enterprise, the WPP-owned identity consultant, for just two weeks, costs 50,000. One design industry expert valued the Dome job at about 1m and even Bayley says: “It (the 50,000) seems like a modest amount.”

The Brand Union was created through the amalgamation of two design groups – Lambie-Nairn, which specialises in TV branding including idents for BBC1, BBC2, Carlton and Channel 4; and Tutssels, which concentrates on packaging projects. Its motivation, according to sources close to the company, is to use the NMEC work as a leg up, possibly even a loss leader, to generate business in a hitherto untapped area.

The contract may bring access to the Dome’s sponsors, including BT and BA. But for an agency which recorded pre-tax profits of just 117,000 in 1996 (having made a pre-tax loss of 38,000 in 1995) it is a financial gamble to take on such a large task for only 50,000.

A spokesman for the Brand Union says: “Neither he (Lambie-Nairn) nor the Brand Union need to take on controversial work for the sake of it. The reason they’ve taken on this project is that it’s exciting as it broadens the company’s portfolio of identity work.”

For some branding experts there is a larger issue. They wonder whether the plethora of logos and identities created by so many different agencies for the various millennium ventures will add to the public’s confusion.

So far designers have been hired to design logos for Millennium Projects which, with its 1.2bn budget will fund 185 schemes, and Millennium Products. The Millennium Commission which hands out the money already has one. To come are the Brand Union’s version for the Dome, one for NMEC and individually designed logos to incorporate sponsors involvement. There is no single logo, despite a desire for one, that businesses can adopt to capitalise on the millennium’s marketing power.

“There should be one brand with perhaps a sub-brand for the Dome. It is symptomatic of the project’s lack of a clear strategy,” says Andy Milligan, director of branding agency Interbrand Newell & Sorrell. “The millennium is a very nebulous thing. The Government is trying to give it a focus but the different logos add to the confusion.”

Doug Hamilton, creative director of branding consultancy Wolff Olins, says: “There are too many logos and not enough ideas. The set-up runs the risk of inter-tribal warfare with projects vying with each other instead of getting together.”.

But Sholto Lindsay-Smith, a consultant at Lloyd Northover Citigate, which was appointed by the Millennium Commission to supply an identity for the Millennium Projects, says: “The Millennium Projects need the umbrella brand to unite them – a common theme to relate them to the event. The profile of the projects needed to be raised. The NMEC has a different objective – it needs a brand to generate sponsorship and visitors to the Dome.”

Last December, the Dome appointed 11 design agencies to fill its interior. This followed the resignation of Imagination the previous March, after it had been offered 7.6m to handle the entire project. The contents and themes of the exhibition are leaking out piecemeal. The event is co-ordinated by Dome production director Claire Sampson.

Maude’s questions about the appointment of the Brand Union will be answered this week. The question of a single image for the millennium will be far harder to answer.

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