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The perils of public sector tendering; new blog from industry insider

By Tender Spot

January 17, 2012 | 5 min read

The Tender Spot aims to dish the dirt on some of the public sector tendering going on and get out in the open the practices being used within the public sector when procuring marketing and communications companies.

Remember when the weekend started on Thursday lunchtime and clients commissioned a new commercial every year instead of rehashing old ones? That’s the ghost of Advertising Past haunting you.

In contrast, the ghost of Advertising Present looks like a sunken-cheeked victim in a famine appeal film.

As for the ghost of Advertising Future, well a growing number of people aren’t sure there is one.

Yes, we live in uncertain times, when the only security is to be found in New Business. Which means… Tendering.

2012 kicked off for most agencies in Scotland with the 4-yearly box-ticking exercise that is the Tender process to get on the Government’s roster of the favoured few. So many boxes asking questions that barely impact upon your ability to provide a service. So many things you feel are relevant, for which no box is provided. And yet you’ve got to go for it, don’t you?

Of course you do.

No doubt that’s exactly what the 150 agencies in England who submitted tenders for the 5 grand Creative England design job were thinking. 150 agencies. £5k. More fool them, you might think. But when times are tough, even the wildest goose can look like a treat worth chasing.

It would be nice to think, wouldn’t it, that the Tendering process itself wasn’t going to be a drain on resources. It would be nice to think that the Government would be doing its best to support an industry that has been one of the country’s success stories.

Recent examples of Tenders up here in Scotland suggest otherwise, however.

Take Dundee City Council’s Tender for a campaign to market the city. Like Creative England, it was open to all comers and it was a relatively small budget – £40k to cover creative development and all production for a national campaign. Unlike Creative England, this one stage Tender asked for creative.

Hands up who thought open invitations to Tender that included creative were a thing of the past? Hands up who thought that Tenders where you do creative but don’t get to present it were the stuff of nightmares?

Of course, you’d have to be an idiot to go for it, wouldn’t you?

Well, some did. In fact, according to some I’ve spoken to, they were informed of their fate several weeks late, suggesting that quite a few agencies did.

The fact is, business is so thin on the ground a lot of agencies will have produced creative ideas without a solid brief and against their better judgement in the hope of winning a lottery. (The winner, of course, was the incumbent, but that’s another issue…)

Meanwhile, over at Heriot Watt University, they decided to put their £1.5 million publicity, schmoozing and paperclips budget out to Tender.

“A big number like that is sure to attract a lot of agencies,” said Mr W to Mr H.

“Absolutely!” said Mr H to Mr W, “So why don’t we charge them £200 for the privilege of receiving the brief? That’s £200 for publicity, £200 for schmoozing and £200 for paperclips. Upfront. If that Irish chap with the airline can do it…”

Fortunately wiser heads prevailed and all charges were quietly dropped. Except the charge of gross optimism/greed, depending on how generous you’re feeling.

And it’s not just advertising. Apparently there was an SDI Tender for a stand for an exhibition in the US where the budget was £70k right up until three days before the deadline, when it was slashed to £58k. That’s a lot of recosting and recalculating. Still, it’s not as if the companies involved had anything better to do.

In all of these cases, a private sector client would probably have looked at a few websites, spoken to a few mates, talked to 3 or 4 agencies and picked the one they felt they could work with. Because business is business and time is money and business people can’t afford to waste time on procurement. But hey, it’s the public sector, so they can afford to really throw some money at it.

Problem is, they expect the agencies to do the same.

If anything is to come of the hard times we are going through, how about we look at the increasingly unwieldy and wasteful machinery involved in employing agencies for the public sector and give it a major overhaul?

Next time – Putting Your Pants On All By Yourself. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about other examples of When Tendering Goes Bad.


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