Saatchi was called upon to handle a pro bono campaign dealing with this month's referendum on the peace plan, but some in the region -- wracked by 30 years of conflict -- would rather a local shop had gotten the assignment than a London-based agency with strong ties to the despised Conservative Party.
The outdoor ad campaign, which was launched last week, was commissioned by an independent non-political group called the "Yes" Campaign. It is urging residents of Northern Ireland to vote for their own regional government in the groundbreaking referendum May 22.
The peace agreement reached last month proposes that Northern Ireland be allowed to set up its own Assembly, in which the U.K. and Irish Republic governments also will participate. The fate of the agreement hinges on this month's referendum.
The ad features two road signs. Under the first, an upward-pointing arrow, are the words: "Vote yes. It's the way forward." Under a no-through sign is the word, "No."
"It is a major first step for us all," said Fiona MacMillan, spokeswoman for the "Yes" Campaign, which approached Saatchi to create the ad.
But no sooner had the ad campaign been unveiled than Saatchi was being attacked for its English origins and former political links.
David Lyle, managing director at McCann-Erickson Northern Ireland, Belfast, lambasted the choice as "naive" for what he said is a "highly sensitive and emotive" issue.
NOT JUST SOUR GRAPES
Mr. Lyle dismissed criticism that his attack against Saatchi was a case of sour grapes.
"We're the ad agency for the government in Northern Ireland, and we're also running a referendum ad but only as a public information campaign," he said. "So we're excluded from doing any campaigns from the political side."
Mr. Lyle said he couldn't understand why several local agencies were not invited to pitch for the "Yes" Campaign business.
"It is arrogant folly," he said. "People in Northern Ireland dislike fat cats from London coming to tell them how to handle such issues in a trite and shallow way. I feel it was damaging to the advertising industry here."
Saatchi Chairman Alan Bishop told Advertising Age Mr. Lyle's views are "absolutely nonsense."
Some ill feeling about the assignment centers on the fact Saatchi was the ad agency for the U.K.'s Conservative government, with its controversial Northern Ireland policies, from the late 1970s until 1995.
Mr. Lyle fears those associations will lose the "Yes" campaign at least 50,000 votes from the estimated 1.3 million people expected to vote.