Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Stronger than the Storm Over an Ad Campaign?

Aside from the George Washington Bridge scandal, Chris Christie is being investigated for possible malfeasance in selecting the agency that was hired to create a post-Sandy "New Jersey is open for business" campaign.

Two things are at issue:

  • That the selected agency did not have the lowest bid ($4.7 million vs. $2.5 million from the other finalist).
  • That the agency's proposed campaign prominently featured the governor and his family while he was running for governor, essentially giving him free airtime of the best possible kind.
The agency, Brushfire Marketing, working with a PR firm named MWW, hinged its pitch on the message "Stronger than the storm," and I have to admit, that's a good slogan. Selecting an ad agency is not usually a matter of selecting the lowest bidder, and I generally think that type of requirement can be counterproductive to a good final product (as evidenced in the disaster).

Note that the work was done on a very tight schedule: five days to put together the pitch, then three weeks to execute the campaign. According to the agency's CEO, "This took the entire agency giving up their personal lives for weeks, but it was worth it."

Who knows why one bid was more expensive than the other? One company can easily estimate its costs differently than another for the scope of a project like an advertising and promotion campaign, even by 88 percent. (Case in point: the other two agencies that bid had even higher prices than Brushfire/MWW's $4.7 million.)

It's possible that when it came time to select the winner, Brushfire/MWW's concept and plan were 88 percent better. We'd have to see the pitch from Sigma Group, the other finalist, to know the answer to that. But even then it would be subjective.

What's not subjective is that Christie's campaign clearly got more for the state's money (which came from federal disaster relief funds), and that's the issue the investigation should focus on, in my opinion. Including Christie in the ads should not have happened. 

Some coverage suggests that using Christie in the ads was the deciding factor in selecting the agency:
At oral presentations for bidders on March 15, state officials “inquired if we would be open to featuring the governor in the ads,’’ said Shannon Morris, president of Sigma Group of Oradell.

“They stated an interest. They asked us about using the governor,’’ Morris told NJ Press Media adding that officials “didn’t ask us about anybody else as a subject.’’


MWW spokesman Bill Murray said in a statement Monday that MWW’s proposal “included no mention or suggestion of using the governor in the paid advertising campaign.”

But Shannon Eis, the company’s senior vice president, said in a May interview with the Press [before the ads became controversial] that MWW executives pitched using the governor in a starring role when they met with state officials on March 15. Eis in that interview said the company made it clear that Christie would have a prominent role.
So it sounds like MWW is now trying to hide the fact that Christie-casting was part of their pitch. It's notable that Sigma Group made its presentation a few hours before MWW: which means the selection committee had the idea on its own, before its members heard it in the MWW pitch.

If this version of events holds up under the increased scrutiny it's going to get, it was clearly wrong, and it reveals another facet of Christie that makes me not want to vote for him. But if the selection was based on the merits of the campaign itself, I don't have a problem with going with the higher bidder.

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