The Scottish Executive
Firstly, congratulations to those who won a place on the roster. The eight years I spent working on HEBS and the Scottish Executive were the most intellectually stimulating and rewarding of my career. Secondly, writing an article on such a sensitive issue is bound to upset someone, so I apologise in advance, as no offence is intended!
So how did we get to here?
For much of the 90s Faulds and Barkers held the account. From a media perspective this was unsatisfactory. The accounts were full service and media owners took full advantage of the account split to limit negotiation scope and discount. In 1998, I managed to do a deal with Barkers to subcontract its proportion of the account to Feather Brooksbank. With HEBS and Historic Scotland in the bag, and my colleagues in Edinburgh handling VisitScotland, it was a natural ambition to try and secure all government work into our company. This was achieved at the centralisation pitch in 2001, Scottish Enterprise excepted.
The announcement that MediaCom has now won the combined media account raises several issues. Is it right to place so much public sector business into one company? On the positive side, as possibly the largest volume of media business within Scotland, it should enable the agency to gain unparalleled value on behalf of the taxpayer.
What about the next review in three years’ time, though? MediaCom now has a golden opportunity to tie up the account and make itself indispensable in the way Barkers has done. There is no substitute for experience and, if they learn the ways of the Executive and deliver ground-breaking public sector media deals, they will have a stranglehold on the account.
An unbiased commentator might suggest that the COI model might be a better long-term solution where the account is split between media agencies. For example, one could handle strategic planning and one buying. Even splitting the account between broadcast and non-broadcast is an option. This would have the advantage of widening experience on the account and introducing a high level of competition. However, the client works under a high level of pressure and perhaps this solution is not attractive, due to the amount of time required to co-ordinate the various parties.
Will the new contract provide real value, though? Value is a tricky word in media. It is easy for procurement to assess terms of business, prospective rates and so on, but what is value and how can it be measured? It is acknowledged that the crew at FB did a great job on the account and were appreciated by the client. They delivered value in securing media rates but also delivered innovative (and award-winning) solutions to achieve cut-through, plus bespoke research for greater understanding of various audiences.
To be most effective, FB had to spend valuable time in department meetings, even if media was not on the agenda, to gain an in-depth understanding of the issues. Heavy servicing of the account was vital to ensure the right level of strategic thinking.
Hopefully, these issues will all have been taken into consideration, along with the integrity of the planning – after all, the budget has to be spent in the right place to do a job and provide real value for money.
So why was it lost? There is no doubt that MediaCom UK is a class act with a proven track record with the COI. Also, it has never made a secret of the fact that it has heavily invested in Scotland, with the objective of being Number One. However, I hope that it has safeguarded a sensible business margin, and that it will spend the money with the local media owners and not through London. I wish them every success.
On the creative side, we have a core of three agencies surrounded by other approved agencies that may or may not already handle aspects of public sector business. This is a sensible safety net after the misfortunes of Yellow M and Faulds in recent years and there should be no surprise in the retention of the lead agencies.
The Executive is unique in the way it has to be handled. Unlike some private sector companies I could name, the client is professional, innovative, courteous and appreciative. However, the political side means that there are extensive consultation processes, long meetings, and often many changes required before a campaign sees the light of day. There is also the challenge of some hostile journalists who are always willing to put a negative spin on an initiative, no matter how accountable, well researched and intentioned.
Barkers has not been on the roster for so long by accident; they have learnt how to work very effectively within these constraints and are a safe pair of hands. New agencies to the roster, no matter how professional, have to learn the ropes, and the new framework should give plenty of opportunity for this.
Finally, should government business be subject to a statutory review every three years if the client is happy with his current arrangements? I can understand the need for public accountability, but if an agency is handling the business well and the client is happy, why go through the rigmarole of a pitch that disrupts workflow and takes up so much time to put together?
A better solution all round might be a rolling contract based on an agreed set of annual performance objectives. This would keep roster agencies on their toes, other agencies interested, and allow continuity where appropriate.