Can agencies afford to take on 2012 task?

One of the largest goods-in-kind contracts around is on the table for marketing agencies. The search for the marketing services provider for the London 2012 Olympics has begun as the current contract, held by Lord Bells Chime Group, expires at the end of this month.

One of the largest “goods-in-kind” contracts around is on the table for marketing agencies. The search for the marketing services provider for the London 2012 Olympics has begun as the current contract, held by Lord Bell’s Chime Group, expires at the end of this month.

Locog recently revealed to interested parties what one attendee described as a “seemingly endless” list of deliverables. A significant part of the brief will be the fiendishly complicated ticketing task, which has yet to be comprehensively cracked by any Olympic Games host.

The successful agency will be appointed as a Tier Three “provider” to the Games, meaning that the marketing services supplier will provide a minimum of £10m in “goods in kind”.

But with agencies being forced to make mass redundancies – WPP announced a cull of 2,000 jobs this year – can they afford to take on such a costly project? In good times, such an appointment might have been worth its weight in good PR but now teams are already stretched to serve paying clients.

As one agency head puts it: “I’ve got to do all this stuff for nothing and what I get out of it is the right to put that logo on my business card.” Another jokes that while his network chief might end up with a peerage, he will end up with a headache.

Though Locog is undoubtedly keen to demonstrate considerable concrete commercial benefits to any winning network, individual agencies within groups may be harder to convince. It is usual for agency networks to carry out a certain amount of pro bono work or at discounted rates for charities and good causes, but this now may be under threat.

Stuart Pocock, managing partner of intermediary The Observatory, says: “During the previous recession, agencies started to back off. As things tighten, paying clients will review activity and perhaps suspend it for a few months. When these bits of business disappear, agencies will reduce staff – they will have to – and the possibilities for pro bono work will disappear with it.”

Although many pro bono accounts use junior teams, building their experience and morale in more experimental ways than would otherwise © be possible, some criticise a lot of pro bono work as being too focused on creating a flashy piece of work, aimed only at attracting PR attention.

McCann Erickson marketing director Vicky Oakes partly agrees with this. She says: “I take the point that sometimes you can scratch the surface of a campaign and think, “Hmm, not so sure about the foundation,” but what some campaigns do is generate so much noise, they work on one level”.

Paying clients could be forgiven for feeling concerned that their agencies should be devoting all their time and resources to them. But most are unwilling to take this stand, saying that as long as they get value for money, agencies’ other work is their own affair.

Former Dairy Crest group marketing director, Richard Tolley, says if clients did have concerns, it would be over the percentage of pro bono work an agency does. But he adds: “You’d be a very mean client to complain.”

Tolley also says that because the category for charities, causes and issues is now so large, he’d expect a marketing agency to want to be doing something in it, just to show balance of capabilities to future paying clients. 

Oakes adds that for McCann, which has worked for Refuge, Médecins Sans Frontières and most recently skin cancer charity Skcin, pro bono work is “morally, a good thing to do”. She says: “It gives the agency a chance to play a role in society, using our skills to bring issues to a mass market. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the industry or how senior you are, everyone wants to feel good about themselves and that they have given something back.”

One US creative director takes “giving back” so seriously he has founded a completely non-profit marketing agency –Serve – manned by volunteers. Its president, Gary Mueller, says the organisation does the polar opposite to attention-grabbing, ad-hoc campaigns and develops long-term strategic plans for causes such as teen pregnancy that are less likely to draw eye-catching celebrity endorsements.

It was the need to feel that he was using his creativity for others that drove Mueller to create Serve. Such a philosophical attitude may presently be out of reach for those agency executives whose consternation at the extent of 2012 brief is understandable, especially given that the Olympics Minster Tessa Jowell herself admits Britain would not have bid for the Games had the Government known a recession was coming.

While the economic situation in 2012 may be very different from that in 2009, it will be a brave network that takes on the Locog job in the present climate. For now, agencies are still asking whether this is one account that they can afford to win.

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