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Scottish Government: A tender subject

By The Drum, Administrator

August 21, 2008 | 9 min read

There’s just a week to go until agencies submit tenders for the Scottish Government’s high profile marketing rosters. Some 462 agencies initially threw their hats in the ring, but who will still be in with a shout in the final shakedown? The Drum loo

In fact, despite the previous contracts having already expired, the new contracts issued will not come into effect until 1 January 2009.

By the time the final decision on which agencies have been appointed/retained to the account has been announced, it will be close to a year since the initial invitation for expressions of interest were sent out. It is perhaps then understandable that all parties involved have felt some frustration.

Still, for most agencies in Scotland, not having a seat at the high-value table – where the budgetary pie being dished out could be as large as £80m – would be disasterous.

The very face of the roster will change following the introduction of several newly identified disciplines. Previously split into three areas – advertising, web and PR – the agencies appointed will now be split into seven better-defined pots – from advertising, PR, digital, design, market research, events and direct mail.

This is the first time that the creative tender in Scotland has had to follow European Procurement regulations, which has meant that every detail has been picked over and every application scrutinized thoroughly for suitability, frustrating both the marketing community and those within the Government alike.

The Invitation to Tender was finally sent out at the end of last month with a deadline of 29 August set – having originally been set at June – after the successful agencies through from the Pre-Qualifying Questionnaire were announced.

Some on the agency side have remarked that while the deadlines on behalf of the client have never been met, it seems somewhat ironic that they should set agency deadlines in stone.

So important is the Government roster to the Scottish marketing and communications industry now, with a slow down in new business within the country in recent years, that Roger Williams, head of marketing at The Scottish Government, who oversees the whole process, finished top of The Drum’s Power 100 list in Scotland last month.


It’s importance to the future of the Scottish industry cannot be underestimated. Once the final roster has been completed, many agencies will know how bright or difficult the next years may be for them going forward.

It speaks volumes that the Government has openly admitted that it didn’t expect the scale of response from applicants, with 462 agencies attempting to get through to the next stage of the tender.

Then again, the roster’s budget is set between £40-£80m over the next three or four years, and while some agencies in the past have found it not to be the cash cow they had hoped, having a place on the roster hightens a company’s credentials to future clients, ten fold.

The new contracts could also see many new public service clients join the list, as they have with the media buying account – which was appointed to Mediacom Scotland late last year.

Clients such as Quality Meat Scotland, Visit Scotland, Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Museums were joined by Registers of Scotland, ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne and the Forestry Commission.

More clients is likely to mean more work for the agencies – and even less work for those who don’t make the final cut. When the numbers through to the next stage were announced – 16 advertising agencies, 20 market research firms, 25 events companies, 35 design agencies, 21 digital teams, seven direct mail firms and 12 PR businesses – some grumbled that 136 agencies going through was likely to mean another delay. And they were correct.

The high number of agencies that had reached the second stage was explained by the Government as ensuring “we have a wide range of options to choose from, to secure the highest quality of service, consistent with our overall aim of providing value for money.”

With the closing of roster agency 1576 last year (then incumbent on the high-profile Visitscotland business), despite a lot of genuine sorrow on behalf of the industry, there were, no doubt, a few crocodile tears shed too, as the collapse of the agency meant that there was now an opening and one less experienced agency to battle with for a slot on the roster.

However, wisened heads in the industry have been quick to question whether that space will be filled at all, following the Government’s admission that it is likely to increase its digital spend rather than its A-T-L spend.

Despite the European Procurement process being introduced to ensure that all applicants in each disciple are treated on merit rather than location, previous relationships with the Government or reputation, it is likely that the bulk of agencies will herald from Scotland.

The questions contained within the ITT involve a great deal of knowledge around the workings of Scottish Government specifically, understanding its remit, its relationships and its people. On top of this, agencies must be able to respond promptly to the Government’s beckon call. If it wants a meeting with agencies within an hour, the account teams had better damned well be there.

This will prove nigh on impossible for companies outside of the country. Possibly one or two from the north of England may get over this problem, but certainly it is hard to see how.

Service levels

Indeed, the percentage of importance of understanding the Scottish Government and its relationship with agencies is rated as a fifth of the overall score, while the service levels that agencies are able to provide also stand at 20 percent.

Account management is rated as 15 percent of the total as is the process of agency handling and how they would look to improve on service levels in the future.

Of course, price and value for money is a key factor too, as this is public money being spent, weighing in at 30 percent in total, but it is interesting that the ITT refers to this as ‘value’ with two questions covering this area.

This is supposedly to ensure that Procurement approves agencies that can provide the best service to deliver its social messages to Scotland, a country with health problems, drink problems, a history of violence and other social issues, not just the best price.

There’s a lot of work to be done. Such a focus on service and quality, rather than cost has been referred to as ‘refreshing’ within the industry, with most tenders in this day and age counting cost as the most important factor. A campaign will not be effective simply because it is delivered cheaply. Often the opposite is true.

However, on the issue of cost-effectiveness, how cost effective has the process, to date, been for the agencies involved?

One industry figure said that the whole process was proving to be even more ‘time consuming’ than ever before and even wondered whether it was a waste of time on the part of most agencies not already working with the roster.

“Looking at some of the questions on the ITT,” said the source, “you really have to know your stuff and understand what the Government needs, which is right. But in order to do that, you probably need experience of public sector work and there simply are not many agencies outside of the roster who can claim to have that.”

Conspiracy theories

The delays have already seen conspiracy theories arise, and despite the whole process being carried out to ensure ‘complete transparancy’ several agency members have said that this is simply a futile exercise and that most of the agencies who make the completed list will be retained from the current one.

The ITT reads that “no discrimination against organisations who have not applied previously” will be made, however, this reassurance has fallen on deaf ears.

Each Government quango has its own procurement threshold value which will determine when a requirement needs to be competed. For example, Scottish Government purchases over £5000 in value require a minimum of three written quotes.

The time consumption of so much work needing to be pitched for could make the whole exercise futile to agencies who cannot afford the time taken away from other clients if they have to pitch for each account after finding a place on the roster.

Williams has stated that ‘mini-pitches’ will only take place when full accounts are to be appointed, and that once an agency wins the account, they will oversee the account throughout the length of the three or four year contract. This already happens in England with the COI roster, and according to Ben Quigley, managing director of Newcastle-based Different – which is one of the few agencies outside of London to have a place on that roster – it means that all agencies have a chance of attaining work, rather than it simply being handed to the same few agencies repeatedly.

There was a fear that pitching would be an aspect of the tender process, but that is not the case.

A spokesperson for the Government confirmed that once this stage is completed, agencies will only be called upon to qualify aspects of their responses if needed.

With a wait of another five months until the final roster is unveiled, this is a process which is set to run and run, despite already being described as ‘long drawn out.’

It could be an uncomfortable second hald of the year for several companies north of the border as they wait to learn their fate.

Scottish Government’s Current agency Roster:

Advertising: The Bridge, The Union, The Leith Agency, Newhaven, Family, Barkers, The Gate

Web: Civic, Whitespace, Union Digital

PR: Smarts, Consolidated, Barkers, The Big Partnership

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