Obstacle Course

There’s a battleship-gray haze hanging over Los Angeles these lazy summer days. It lingers like a cloud of smoke in a windowless room, obscuring the mountains that, we’re told, tower in the distance.

Still, in the ad world, the wheels continue to turn. Accounts are up for grabs, but, like decent pizza and sincere friendship, they can be hard to find in L.A. So if the car and entertainment reviews are scarce these days, why not turn to the state? It can be a good source of nourishment.

But before elbowing your way to the public trough, be warned: California can be a cruel mistress. Just ask the Los Angeles offices of Grey or DDB.

In its four years on the state lottery account, Grey helped retail sales steadily increase. The success even helped the shop land an “emergency” power-conservation account, without a review, during the energy crisis. But rules are rules, and last year the state began a mandatory review for the five-year, $125 million lottery business.

After a typically extensive review, DDB was named the “apparent” winner. But Grey filed a protest, and the state ultimately concocted a do-over review, which just concluded. This time Grey and DDB were both left in the lurch as Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco, waltzed off as the new apparent winner.

It was a tough pill for Grey to swallow. And for DDB, too, which must have felt that its winning lottery ticket had somehow been misplaced. Sure enough, DDB has now filed its own intent to protest, lottery officials say, so it seems that this circus like review may never end.

In the private sector, agencies that come out on the short end of a pitch usually have no recourse. But since it involves taxpayer money, California’s review process is a byzantine affair that frequently veers into absurdity. (Who can forget last year’s 100-page RFP for the state’s healthy-living initiative, an account worth less than $7 million annually?)

And if one of the competing agencies has a problem with the outcome, the state’s knee-jerk reaction often seems to be to just put the account back in review. This is why the winners are only referred to as “apparent successful bidders.”

Even so, many shops can ill afford to snub government business. Most states spend public money on advertising, but California basks in it. Anti-smoking, nutrition, agriculture, energy conservation, emissions testing, you name it—if the public should know about it, there’s probably an ad account for it. Plus, the accounts usually have Latino, African American and Asian American components.

But with so much public-service work out there, a lot of it feels superfluous, and some of it is bizarre. After school let out this past spring, for example, a series of state-sponsored ads reminded parents that they should feed their kids three times a day during the summer. And the message of last year’s recycling campaign was that we should feel sorry for cans and bottles left in the gutter.

Still, while it may be unpredict able and often disloyal, California has deep pockets. And that’s the bottom line for ad folks who are starting to believe that “new business” is a contradiction in terms.