Army review draws fire on 2 fronts

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A leading civil rights activist and a U.S. congresswoman are seeking an audience with officials from the Department of Defense to protest the U.S. Army's decision to effectively exclude minority agencies not partnered with major shops from pitching its $130 million account.

"The Army's request . . . severely impedes the consideration of qualified minority-owned and -targeted advertising businesses," wrote the Rev. Al Sharpton in a letter to Army Secretary Louis Caldera, in which he requested a meeting.

Similar concerns were espoused by U.S. Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D., Mich.), who wrote Defense Secretary William Cohen last week. In her letter, Rep. Kilpatrick warned the Army's requirement that agencies applying for the contract have at least $350 million in billings "creates a large barrier to entry for minority-owned, women-owned and small businesses.

CONGRESSWOMAN'S CONCERNS

"I write to you with great alarm," said Rep. Kilpatrick in her letter, which questioned whether the Army complied with a requirement that Congress had added to the military appropriations bill suggesting the Defense Department work more closely with such businesses.

Rep. Kilpatrick also asked Mr. Cohen to address several concerns, including how the $350 million figure was chosen and whether "requiring minority advertising agencies to partner with general market agencies for niche business [will reduce] access to and ability to identify the best creative work and expertise for targeted efforts. The letter also asked for an explanation of how "general market agency supervision/control of a smaller minority agency improve[s] the work product."

The American Advertising Federation, meanwhile, also weighed in, asking the Army for a review of the bidding process. AAF Chairman-CEO Wally Snyder, joined by the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies, wrote Mr. Caldera, noting, "We believe the [Army] may want to cast a wider net."

In an interview, the Rev. Sharpton threatened to put together a "direct action campaign" if the Army didn't change its plans.

"I think it is outrageous that the Army would put in such a standard to get their business. Why not just write, `For whites only?'" he said. "What they are really saying is minorities can be subcontractors, but not main contractors."

CREATING OPPORTUNITIES

The Army, meanwhile, said it "look[s] forward" to explaining how its new advertising contract "will create more opportunities for smaller and ethnic firms."

"The new contract will help provide increased flexibility in obtaining advertising services as well as increasing the opportunity for subcontracting with talented agencies directly for communications projects," a spokesman said.

"Quality ideas come from advertising agencies of all sizes, and we are open to these exciting prospects while balancing the need to seek out a partner that can manage a large, complex national account of more than $110 million a year in billings," he said.

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