Army erred in review rules

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The u.s. army has blundered into controversy with its current ad agency review. Its business-as-usual approach to finding a new shop blithely dismissed the aspirations of newly aggressive minority ad agencies. The Army needs to regroup and try a new approach or this review will bog down in an even nastier squabble that could involve Congress and the White House, too.

At $130 million, this account, now held by Y&R Advertising, is big by any measure. With the Army struggling to fill its ranks, getting top creative for the campaign is important to both taxpayers and the national security. Yet the Army plan seems deaf to the lobbying campaign by minority agencies for more access to government advertising work.

In its defense, the Army has a long and praiseworthy record of requiring the agencies that win its account to subcontract with minority agencies for specialized campaigns aimed at minorities. Army officials continue old patterns in this new review, however: They state the Army will contract only with a large agency, or consortium of agencies. Shops or consortia with less than $350 million need not apply. Is that billings size threshold too high?

The size limits mean minority shops can pursue Army ad work only by partnering with a larger general-market agency. Those unable to do so cannot bid on their own, no matter what talents they might have. And, with many big U.S. agencies now tied to particular minority shops through ownership interests, independent minority shops face an extra hurdle in seeking a general market agency partner.

To be sure, it's simpler to let one general contract, and an effective ad effort requires that general market and minority market campaigns be closely coordinated. Unlike the private sector, however, the Army's plans ultimately face review by the White House and oversight committees in the Senate and House, and minority agencies certainly will take their grievances to both places.

Army officials were said to be reconsidering their plans last week in reaction to an initial round of protests about the review procedures. That's a good sign. There's no telling how successful smaller agencies and minority shops would be in a more open review, but if sacrificing simplicity brings more bidders -- and more advertising ideas for the Army to choose from -- then it's worth the risk of changing the rules.

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