US Ad Shops Fight Shy of Anti-Drugs Pitch

19 August 2004

Seen by many on Madison Avenue as a poisoned chalice, the $130 million (€105.44m; £71.08m) advertising account of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy is currently up for pitch.

But only two agencies are contending for this apparently glittering prize: Foote Cone & Belding and J Walter Thompson, both of which are making oral presentations this week. While at a pre-proposal briefing in July, only two other agencies attended.

These were WPP Group's promotions specialist 141 and youth/ethnic market independent Vital Marketing -- neither of which can directly pitch for the business as they are not listed on the US General Services Administration's schedule of approved vendors. This requires that contenders' accounting systems are certified to handle federal government work. There are two hundred marketing companies thus qualified.

But there is a second and higher hurdle: the successful shop must have liquid assets sufficient to enable it to fund up to $40 million in forward media purchases without advance payment from the client.

Although not qualified by these criteria, Vital and 141 are seen as potential partners to the lucky [?] winner whose identity will be disclosed in early September.

Given that most agencies would sell their grandmothers for a chance to pitch a $130m slice of business, why is the ONDCP so lacking in appeal?

The fallout from the Ogilvy & Mather 'overcharging' saga [WAMN: 17-Feb-04] is probably the lesser of two major turn-offs. The real deterrent is a contractual requirement to work alongside the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

This forty-headed Hydra oversees creative on the ONDCP account and comprises a roster shop for each head. Which means the victor's duties are mainly account management, media buying -- and hand-to-hand combat.

The request for proposals requires that "... the advertising contractor must develop a relationship with PDFA [and] must enter into a subcontract or some other arrangement with PDFA".

Observes one agency cynic: "Maybe it should also specify a taste for masochism."

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