White House nears $150M drug decision

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The White House Office of Drug Control Policy will award its $150 million account this week, and political veterans are betting WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather will lose the business.

Ogilvy, which paid $1.8 million and revamped its accounting system to resolve civil issues from its initial handling of government billings, is seen as a long shot, given that the agency is caught in a political maelstrom. Though the agency has little to do with the creative work that's caused infighting between the drug office and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, Ogilvy has been caught in the crossfire.

Not only did it draw Congressional scorn again last week, but Congress roundly criticized drug office czar John P. Walters in a move that could have serious repercussions for the agency. Congress charged Mr. Walters did not spend enough of his annual budget on media, did not demonstrate the campaign's success and was too quick to condemn the campaign on the basis of a single study.

That was followed by an ominous suggestion from Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., that Ogilvy's departure on the account would quiet chances Congress might abandon the ad program. "Preferably when somebody has been found guilty of cheating, they don't get the new contract," Rep. Souder said, adding that an award to Ogilvy "will create problems among some members," and prompt them to drum up congressional opposition to the program.

Added to that is the voice of Ogilvy's biggest critic, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who noted at a hearing last week that while the civil charges against the agency are settled, alterations in the time sheets Ogilvy used to support its first billings are still being probed and could produce criminal charges. "The fact that we are continuing to provide money to a company under criminal investigation ... seems to me rather contradictory," he said.

"If you can't read the writing on this wall, you can't read," said one political observer. "There is a resounding and clear signal coming from leaders on the hill that [Ogilvy keeping the account] is not going to happen."

Ogilvy declined to comment.

five bidders

Including Ogilvy, there are five bidders for the business, which involves strategy, media planning and buying, but little creative. The other bid teams are Interpublic Group of Cos.' Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide, New York, pitching with Initiative Media; McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, with Universal McCann, both Interpublic shops; Cordiant Communications Group's Bates Worldwide, New York, with Zenith Media; and Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, also bidding with Zenith. (Zenith is owned by Cordiant and Publicis.) Each of the teams also have minority agencies. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America does most of the drug office creative.

It's clear whoever wins the account will be walking into a politically charged atmosphere, as the drug office took it on the chin last week.

A House Appropriations panel cut the program's total budget for the next fiscal year by $10 million to $170 million, but demanded that $150 million be spent on media. Panel Chairman Ernest Istook, R.-Okla., called the office's administrative spending "exorbitant."

The action appeared to support the Partnership, which has been embroiled in a battle with the drug office over the campaign's effectiveness. That war was begun when Mr. Walters cited a study that indicated there were serious flaws in the drug office campaign.

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