ONDCP’s PR Review Draws A Few Unusual Suspects

The sign-in sheet at the May 11 bidder’s conference for the $6 million public relations part of the White House’s anti-drug media campaign held some interesting names.

PR shops such as incumbent Fleishman Hillard, Edelman Public Relations, Golin Harris and Hill & Knowlton were a predictable presence. But the fact that Arnold, Grey and Campbell-Ewald were there raised some eyebrows.

Sources said Havas’ Arnold in Boston and Grey in New York have their eyes on a bigger prize: the media-buying portion of the $145 million account, held by WPP Group’s Ogilvy & Mather in New York for the past six years.

After questions were raised about Ogilvy’s billing practices, ONDCP put the account into review, and in July 2002, Ogilvy was awarded a one-year contract with four renewal options. But last November, following months of pressure from lawmakers who want to bar Ogilvy from the account, ONDCP said it would not renew the agency’s contract when it expires in September. The agency search was motivated not by lawmaker pressure, ONDCP said, but rather a desire to improve the campaign by instituting a performance-based contract.

Given Ogilvy’s troubled history with ONDCP—the agency paid $1.8 million to settle a civil complaint that it overbilled the government, and two former executives face criminal charges relating to the issue—most agencies appear to be proceeding cautiously. “That account has been a hornet’s nest, and that is going to make quality agencies pause no matter what the size of the account,” one source said.

Another executive added, “It was a public lynching of Ogilvy, and the question is, Does another agency want to get into that situation?”

It could be some time before shops see an RFP. The Department of the Interior, which is managing the PR contract, has informed the ONDCP that it no longer wants to handle the drug office’s contracts. The Department of the Interior is the third government department—following the Department of the Navy and the Department of Health and Human Services—to serve as a contracting authority since the national anti-drug campaign launched in 1998.

When Interior posted a “request for quote” for the PR account on its Web site in March, readers could see material intended to be private, such as the $6 million cost. Then, for reasons unrelated to the review, a federal judge ordered Interior to shut down its site, forcing ONDCP to withdraw the solicitation and reissue it.

Interior will not handle the media review. “[Interior] determined they were unable to comply with what we thought was an agreement,” said ONDCP rep Tom Riley. “We are now exploring other options.”

The PR account, meanwhile, may shrink or even be cut. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which coordinates the pro-bono work of about 40 shops, has lobbied Congress to put more of the campaign’s budget toward media planning and buying and less toward PR. If the pending reauthorization bill is passed, ONDCP would have to spend 85 percent of its budget on media buys and to assign creative only to agencies participating through the Partnership.

The two former senior partners at Ogilvy charged with fraud appeared in U.S. District Court in New York last Monday, where a judge granted both sides more time to examine documents before hearing motions. The government agreed to provide Ogilvy’s e-mail records to the defense. Both Thomas Early, the agency’s former director of finance, and Shona Seifert, a former executive group director who is president of TBWA\Chiat\Day in New York, have pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy and 10 counts of making false claims and statements. The trial is set to begin Sept. 7.