Editorial: Ogilvy, vindicated, must sell doubters

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That Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide has won a second chance on the $150 million federal anti-drug advertising campaign is a testament to its determination to right past mistakes and to fight for the business. Against the odds, it's convinced at least one critical audience, federal procurement officials, that it's the best choice. But Ogilvy faces a selling job elsewhere in Washington, and government contracting rules allow for challenges by losing agency bidders.

If ever an agency's hold on an account seemed tenuous, it was Ogilvy's grasp on the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, directed by the White House anti-drug policy office. Ogilvy had overbilled its government client in its early handling of the account. In Washington, the billings foul-up erupted into a mini-scandal, with investigations and angry hearings in Congress. While Ogilvy eventually paid the government $1.8 million in penalties, the cost was higher than that. Its good name was badly bruised, and its critics in government forced an early account review in a transparent effort to get a new agency on the business.

Ogilvy looked like a lame duck to many, but it declined to quietly bow out. It got government auditors to bless a revamped cost-accounting system and bet an often-complicated federal contracting system, designed to shield government purchasing decisions from outside political pressures, would give it equal treatment in the new competition for the business. And the system apparently did.

This happy ending for Ogilvy, however, may not be good news for the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. The campaign, a potentially critical test of paid advertising's ability to further social policy goals, is in trouble, and Ogilvy's continued role could provide ammunition to campaign critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. Celebrations at Ogilvy should be short. It won the pitch, but it still has a job to do to reassure policymakers in the White House and in Congress that it's truly the right agency for the account.

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