Drug czar, Partnership feud over ad direction and tactics

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What happens when a veteran anti-drug warrior and a zealous ad group clash over the classic supply-demand equation? Nothing good if it's the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The two sides, I've been told, aren't even talking with one another at the upper levels.

The drug-control office, headed by John Walters, who worked in the first Bush Administration for the original "drug czar," Bill Bennett, wants to root out the supply of drugs, starting in Colombia. The Partnership wants to reduce demand by reaching teen-agers. In the middle is WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, whose controversial reappointment to buy media and evaluate ads for the anti-drug effort threatens to shut off its government funding.

The government has been funding the Partnership's anti-drug efforts to the tune of between $180 million and $195 million a year. In addition, the Partnership oversees another $140 million in pro bono ads, used mostly for local initiatives.

But there's a real question whether funding will continue because of the Ogilvy connection. Ogilvy paid a $1.8 million penalty to settle civil charges that it overbilled on the anti-drug account; more importantly, a criminal investigation is ongoing.

The Partnership's three-year funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, $5 million a year, is also up for renewal. The Partnership's total budget is $8.5 million (it gets no government money to run its operation). The rest comes from about 150 companies and non-profits. I've been told the foundation views the controversy in Washington as a "distraction," and that it would be happy to continue funding such Partnership programs as an anti-Ecstasy series of ads, or a substance abuse treatment campaign about to be tested in Phoenix and St. Louis, without government involvement.

One of the problems in the federal funding program is that Mr. Walters is not the Partnership's biggest fan. He wanted at one point to turn the program over to the Ad Council. He not only contends the Partnership's advertising hasn't been terribly effective but he also believes interdiction-eliminating the flow of drugs at their source-is a more efficient way to go. Before he became drug czar, Mr. Walters said an anti-drug campaign aimed at teens is a "lazy man's way of trying to appear that they're doing something."

Last month, the government shocked the ad industry by rehiring Ogilvy for the anti-drug account (top Partnership people thought the bidding was stacked in Ogilvy's favor).

But why would the feds choose an agency, Ogilvy, still under criminal investigation? And why did Mr. Walters not discourage Ogilvy's rebid? One reason might be that Ogilvy had created a campaign for him, pro bono, linking drug use with helping terrorism. Another might be that Mr. Walters was counting on Ogilvy's reappointment to infuriate some members of Congress (like Rep. Bob Barr, R., Ga.) so they'd cut off funding for the campaign. Rep. Barr has hinted that there was some sort of "sweetheart deal" in the works between the government and Ogilvy, something to do with the Democratic National Committee and an operative within the Partnership.

Sounds like a soap opera, I know, but I'm not making this stuff up, folks.

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