M&C Saatchi millennium win causes controversy

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LONDON -- The organization promoting Britain's millennium celebrations denies widespread criticism that M&C Saatchi has had an unfair advantage in winning the $26m Millennium Experience advertising account.

The government-supported company behind the project, the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC), says its tendering procedure was not influenced by Bill Muirhead, a former advisor to the millennium commission and a founding partner of M&C Saatchi. NMEC chairman Bob Ayling, who is also chief executive of M&C Saatchi client British Airways, had no involvement in the early stages of the pitch and only approved the tendering panel's recommendation along with the rest of the board, according to NMEC senior press officer Terence Gibbons.

Prior to the Labour party's election landslide last May, the then Conservative Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine championed a national millennium celebration to be focused on a domed exhibition at Greenwich, the home of Greenwich Mean Time. M&C Saatchi worked on the Conservative's unsuccessful re-election campaign, creating the infamous poster campaign which depicted Labour Party leader Tony Blair with demon eyes.

In February, Bill Muirhead took up the unpaid and what the NMEC calls the "informal" role of acting communications director. On June 16 Muirhead resigned from the role, just two weeks before the NMEC published an advertisement in the Official Journal of the European Community seeking an ad agency. From the ad, five agencies were shortlisted on July 16: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Leo Burnett, M&C Saatchi, Ogilvy & Mather and TBWA Simons Palmer. The five made a presentation to a five-person tender panel on August 15 and the account was awarded on August 22.

"The tendering panel was set up to keep all approaches [by ad agencies] strictly by the book," says Gibbons.

The tender panel consisted of: Jennie Page (NMEC CEO and former chief executive of English Heritage), Michael Grade (NMEC non-executive director and former head of Channel 4), Ian Ash (non-executive director and a director of corporate strategy at British Telecommunications) and Jeff Hawkins, the NMEC implementation director in charge of tendering.

Page said when the account was awarded: "M&C Saatchi were the agency that offered by far the most practical and commercial response to the challenges ahead and understood the limited time-scale. The tender panel therefore unanimously agreed on the choice of M&C Saatchi."

Copyright August 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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