The decision pulls the rug out from under Bates USA and Zenith Media, which had done buying since the anti-drug program's inception in January 1998. Bates is owned by Cordiant Communications Group, which also owns half of Zenith.
The drug office valued the account at $129 million a year. The actual value could double since the drug office is trying to get media companies to donate one free spot for every paid one in a media-matching arrangement.
The campaign, using creative from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, started in 12 test cities last January and went national in July. It is scheduled to run five years but its funding will be re-evaluated by Congress and the president annually.
O&M'S BUYING CLOUT
O&M was selected over Bates/Zenith and another contender, a partnership of Western International Media and Margeotes/Fertitta & Partners, in part because of O&M's media-buying clout, the drug office said.
"This company buys more time on national broadcast media in the U.S. than any other ad agency and so will give the campaign access to media-match opportunities -- and to extremely competitive network media prices," the drug office said in a statement.
MacManus Group's TeleVest unit actually buys more national broadcast time than O&M. But O&M added the Alliance, a joint venture with WPP Group sibling J. Walter Thompson USA, to its count to justify the claim. The two agencies pool upfront information, but buy media separately.
The drug office also cited O&M's success targeting younger consumers for several large marketers -- including Mattel and Eastman Kodak Co. -- and its role in the "America Responds to AIDS" public service campaign.
O&M's bid anticipated the involvement of several other smaller shops in media planning and buying decisions, including WPP's Geppetto kids unit and independent urban-marketing specialist PersuadBros., New York.
The drug office's use of Bates and Zenith to buy media had drawn criticism from Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R., Ariz.), who blasted Bates' past work for tobacco giant Philip Morris Cos.
Sen. McCain's letter to drug czar Barry McCaffrey drew ad groups' ire, but drug office officials said last week that Bates' tobacco work didn't play a role in its decision.
But the American Heart Association, whose concerns prompted Sen. McCain's letter, said it was pleased the business was leaving Bates. "We think our conversations certainly raised the awareness of the conflict of interest," said Diane Canova, VP-advocacy.
`DON'T CUT PREVENTION'
Gen. McCaffrey said he is hopeful the ad campaign can continue for 10 years or longer. "Every year there is a new crop of eighth graders facing a decision," he said. "If we truly believe that drugs cost America $110 billion [each year], then the one thing you don't want to cut back on is prevention."
The $129 million to be spent annually for anti-drug ads cited by the drug office is slightly less than anticipated. Last month, the drug office decided to allocate some $10 million a year of the funds set aside by Congress for the anti-drug effort for public relations. Omnicom Group's Fleishman-Hillard, New York and Washington, was named to handle that account.