MWW claims vindication in Stronger than the Storm campaign award audit

A Housing and Urban Development audit found that MWW's bid for what became the Stronger than the Storm campaign was lower than those of competitors and that it did not initially propose to feature Governor Chris Christie in the ads, as critics had charged.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ: MWW is "extremely pleased" with a federal audit released Wednesday that showed the firm placed the lowest initial and overall bids for the $25 million Stronger than the Storm campaign promoting New Jersey tourism after Superstorm Sandy.  

Federal officials began investigating in January whether Sandy relief funds were misused when they were directed to tourism ads. Critics had also charged that MWW won the account because its proposal gave New Jersey Governor Chris Christie a starring role in the spots. The agency has called those allegations inaccurate.

"[The audit] actually confirmed everything that we’ve maintained all along, principally that MWW was the low bidder for this contract," said Josh Zeitz, SVP at MWW.

According to the report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general, MWW’s bid came in at about $22.4 million, roughly $4.8 million less than the runner-up, which the report identified as Weber Shandwick.

A representative from Weber could not be immediately reached for comment.

MWW won the contract worth up to $25 million in April 2013, and the state spent $23 million on tourism marketing activity as of February 2014.

However, fellow New Jersey-based firm Sigma Group "believed their bid for the work was lower than MWW’s," according to A Sigma representative declined to comment.

Zeitz added that MWW "made no use of the governor" in its proposal, countering speculation that Christie, thought to be preparing for a run for the White House in 2016, wanted to use the ads to raise his profile.

However, the audit, released by HUD’s inspector general, found the state did not follow proper procurement procedure but did "nothing improper in the content of the state’s marketing campaign." Reports in January indicated federal investigators were scrutinizing whether funding for the promotional campaign was misused.

The report also found that the state "did not procure services and products for its tourism marketing program in a manner that fully met the intent of the federal requirements."

It added that New Jersey "did not immediately address the need for a required independent cost estimate and cost analysis before awarding a contract with a budget of up to $25 million for marketing and outreach services."

According to the audit, the state should have made independent estimates "before receiving bids or proposals" as well as performed its own cost analysis. New Jersey could not show competitive purchasing or demonstrate that MWW had timesheets "to support wages and salaries it charged to the program," which the audit said was a result of the state being "not fully aware" of federal requirements.

HUD’s inspector general office said in the report that the state turned over documentation at the end of the audit "to determine the appropriateness of all contract costs."

While the Stronger than the Storm ads were common in the summer of 2013, they were replaced this summer with spots featuring the tagline "New Jersey: Going Strong."

The Going Strong campaign also replaced Stronger than the Storm on social media this summer.

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