Bid procedure changes: New process speeds award of gov't ad contracts

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A new system for awarding U.S. government ad contracts has the potential to cut the time for awards from as long as 245 days to 30.

In an effort to proceed more quickly while still ensuring competition, the General Services Administration is developing a schedule of prequalified advertising agencies that eliminates the need to advertise bids. The move, however, could result in some ad agencies not becoming aware of contracts before they are awarded.

Government offices requiring advertising can still go through the normal bidding process. But should they choose to use the GSA schedule, they can simply call ad agencies on the list, ask for a bid and award the account.

"We have schedules on 150 different contracts," said Sue McIver, director of GSA's services acquisitions center, who estimated the time can be winnowed to a month from as much as 245 days.

Ms. McIver said that much of the financial and legal checking of the contractors during the bidding process is done when agencies get added to the schedule, allowing government offices to start with one task already done. Because bids don't have to be advertised, the process goes faster.

The "marketing, media and public information schedule" is starting with smaller contracts for everything from photography to small ad contracts. In June, the U.S. Marine Corps became the first office to switch to the GSA process. The Marines retained WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson Co., Atlanta, its agency for 54 years, for its $18 million-a-year account via the process. JWT received a one-year contract renewable for up to four years. Only two other shops were asked to submit bids; the competition was never formally announced.

Jeff White, president of JWT, Atlanta, said his agency had originally qualified for the GSA schedule with hopes of winning other government business. It has a contract with the Environmental Protection Agency for a small program.

He suggested that in some ways the new process is similar to that of private industry. For shops chosen to submit bids, the proposal requirements aren't that different. "The financial burden takes [fewer] hours to prepare, but you have to do it upfront," he said.

choosing bidders

While the regular process lets an ad agency decide whether to submit a bid, the new process lets government executives choose which contractors they will ask for bids and includes little public notice. A government agency can still post a notice that it is looking.

Linda Dove, senior VP of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, said the nearly 300 contractors on the list are mostly small firms or individuals. The Four A's hopes that once big ad agencies get on the list they will have a better opportunity to pitch new ad programs.

"If they can think up a program ... and say `we are cleared and already on the schedule,' it could make ad agencies more entrepreneurial," she said.

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