Pitching for EC business has been a difficult and frustrating
enterprise, but UK agency heads still have faith in the commercial
rewards offered by its giant PR accounts
Seasoned observers of the European Commission’s approach to public
relations will have permitted themselves a wry smile at the news that it
has been forced to re-issue tenders for its multi-million pound
‘information society’ campaign (PR Week 27 October).
The news emerged less than a month after DGVI pulled the plug on tenders
for its pounds 24 million olive oil promotion - Europe’s largest ever
generic food promotion - after 15 months and a selection process which
saw bids from 100 agencies narrowed down to a shortlist of 21.
Procedural errors is the official story. However, some sources in and
around the corridors of power point to bickering between the EU’s four
main olive oil producers: Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain.
Time is short - the campaign is due to start at the beginning of 1996 at
the latest - and the Commission was forced to re-issue the tender under
its accelerated procedure last month. With just 13 days for any hopefuls
not already shortlisted to lodge their bids - in triplicate - it is
perhaps not surprising that, according to one source within DGVI, none
A official at DGX, the Commission’s information ministry, makes soothing
noises: ‘I see no reason why agencies should be worried this time.’ But
the truth is his office only plays a supporting role in the procedure.
‘I can send someone along to sit in on the committee meetings but
ultimately it is DGVI that negotiates and takes the decisions here,’ he
So who exactly is pulling the strings?
According to Commission insiders it is the Comite Consultatif des Achats
et Marche (CCAM) which is the real culprit. Otherwise known as the
Advisory Committee for Purchasing Contracts, this shadowy body acts like
an internal watchdog, making sure that all appointments of outside
products or services suppliers are conducted correctly.
Each contract appointment is sent to the CCAM once a provider has been
chosen. The CCAM will then advise the commissioning DG whether the
contract should go ahead or not. ‘All bureaucrats within the EC fear the
CCAM,’ admits one official. ‘I’ve been called in front of them twice to
explain myself. It is not a pleasant experience. But then it’s not
supposed to be.
‘We only advise,’ explains Thierry Vinois, secretary to the CCAM. ‘A
decision to cancel an appointment is taken by the head of the DG
involved, not us.’
In fact the decision to pull the tenders for the olive oil and
information society accounts can be traced to EC president Jacques
Santer as part of a drive to create greater transparency in EC
It follows complaints that the shortlist procedure was being perverted
by some DGs. ‘According to some - mostly agencies that had failed to win
a slice of EC business - shortlists hid the fact that the same names
would continue to be picked for wide ranging contracts,’ explains one EC
New rules governing the appointment of services contracts introduced in
July mean it is no longer enough to put out a call for tender for a
general PR account. DGs must now put out separate tenders for each
individual task, such as press relations, conference organising, and
printing of promotional literature.
Unfortunately no one appears to have told the DGs themselves.
‘We first put out a call for tender for the information society account
in the Official Journal of the European Communities in the spring, under
the old procedures,’ explains an official at telecoms ministry DGXIII.
‘When we realised our call for tender breached the new rules we decided
to start the process again ourselves. We didn’t even approach the CCAM,’
‘The new rules are a drag for us,’ says one official. ‘Instead of a
simple call for tender, we now have to make four or five calls. It is
But another official agrees with the rule change. ‘It is a smart move,’
he says. ‘It will compel the EC to have a very clear idea of exactly
what it wants when it puts out a call for tender. It’s too easy to put
out a call for a cure-all PR tender. We will have to be specific now.
‘These recent problems are no more than a transitional problem which is
to be expected when the rules change.’
All of this should be good news for PR agencies which have consistently
griped about the Commission’s muddled approach to public relations and
voiced suspicions about the existence of an elite club of agencies which
always get the business.
However, many problems remain, not least of which is the Commission’s
erratic approach to payment. Although there is a procedure for paying
within 60 days, with an up front payment of 30 per cent of the contract,
DGX admits this is not always adhered to.
Peter Hehir, chairman of Countrywide International (one of the
shortlisted agencies for the olive oil campaign), and president of the
International Consultants Organisation, has been leading attempts to
improve the situation.
At the beginning of October he, together with other agency heads, met
with officials at the Commission to try and explain how it could
improve. ‘We were not criticising the EC at all,’ he explains.
‘The Commission has a communication problem which we are trying to help
solve,’ he adds diplomatically. In addition to finding a solution to the
flawed tendering process the ICO is offering advice on how rates of
payment and how to write a proper brief.
The fact that no agency head will be quoted criticising the Commission
indicates that for all the problems, they regard it as a potential
source of new business. And for those that are tempted to turn their
backs on the Commission, our man at DGX has a simple message: ‘The EC
doesn’t go broke, it doesn’t move and it does pay up - eventually.’