Invites Advertising and PR Shops to Discuss 2010 Campaign

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- The U.S. Census Bureau has started the hunt for advertising and PR agencies to help with its next once-a-decade survey of the American public.

While the census doesn’t take place for another four years -- the research will begin April 2010 -- the Census Bureau is already gearing

The Census Bureau is gearing up for the 2010 Census -- it spent $200 million on advertising and publicity for the 2000 survey.
up for a “dress rehearsal” of forms and procedures in 2008. It has invited advertising agencies, public relations agencies and “communication-related agencies” for a morning “talk” on Feb. 17.

Setting campaign parameters
According to a notice on a government Web site, the meeting is an attempt to give potential agencies a "glimpse of the campaign’s possible objectives” and get input from agencies to "obtain an understanding of current best practices in the industry regarding media usage, strategies, tactics, audience segmentation,” among other things.

Census Bureau officials said they want the conference to open a dialogue with the ad community on what’s needed for 2010. A request for proposals will come later, though the officials wouldn’t say when.

Lucrative business
The good news for the winning agencies is that the assignment is a high-visibility contract and relatively lucrative work. Unlike most government ad contracts, which call for advertising over a long period, the bureau spends a lot of money in a short time. Ad spending around the last census, including public relations, eventually reached $200 million. A team of agencies led by WPP Group's Young & Rubicam executed the contract.

In addition, the agencies should find it easier to improve the rate of returns than in the past, because the unpopular long-form questionnaire that went out to one in every four households has been replaced by information the Bureau gathers through American Community Surveys.

The bad news
The contract does, however, come with challenges. Getting households to fill out census forms -- the main task of the ad campaign -- hasn’t been easy in recent decades. (It was the poor rate of returns that prompted the Census Bureau to abandon its traditional dependence on public-service ads and switch to paid ads for the last census.) What’s more, increased publicity over breaches of consumers’ privacy present a new challenge for the bureau and its agencies.

“You don’t know,” said David McMahon, a bureau spokesman. “With people worried about things like identify theft and hacking, you don’t know how people feel toward privacy.” Stephen Buckner, director-public relations and events, said the question of how to deal with privacy issues is something that the agencies will need to tackle. “Certainly concerns about privacy have been raised. A lot of research needs to be done.”

Lower return rates cost millions
The campaign for the 2000 census was themed “This is your future. Don't leave it blank,” and included a buy in the Super Bowl. The bureau credited trhe spot with helping to increase return rates.

Those return rates are important because when mailed forms aren’t sent back, enumerators are sent door to door to collect information from missing households. Those enumerators are expensive. In 2000, the Bureau estimated it cost an additional $30 million every time return rates dropped 1%.

The Census Bureau hasn’t said how much will be spent on the marketing push, but there are hints that the winning agencies could have a robust budget. The bureau said in its documents that the aim for 2010 is to reduce the costs of doing the census from the $12.3 billion that would be required to repeat the processes used in 2000. One way to hold down costs: Get more households to submit their questionnaires.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that ad spending behind the last census was $100 million. The Census Bureau initially awarded a $100 million ad contract but boosted ad spending after a Supreme Court decision forced it to change procedures. PR efforts brought total spending to $200 million.

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