The Conservative spending spree on government ads was very good to Al Albania.
The veteran ad man's little-known Ottawa agency, Acart Communications, won more contracts than any other firm as Ottawa turned on the taps to promote its recessionary spending.
A Globe and Mail analysis of ad contracts for a 2½-year period beginning in the spring of 2009 reveals Acart beat out large international ad firms like KBS+P and Ogilvy Montreal.
Marketing Magazine recently published a list of Canada's top-10 ad agencies for 2011, but editor-in-chief Tom Gierasimczuk had never heard of Acart when asked by The Globe. Neither had his colleagues. The magazine's archives found three brief mentions of the firm. "It's certainly not a prominent company," Mr. Gierasimczuk said.
Yet the firm Mr. Albania, 66, set up nearly 40 years ago appears to have found the sweet spot for winning federal ad contracts in post-sponsorship Ottawa. Acart has produced Economic Action Plan ads for Human Resources and Skills Development Canada that highlight retraining programs and was also hired for campaigns focused on elder abuse and the H1N1 virus.
There is no evidence to suggest Acart owes its success to political favouritism. In the wake of the sponsorship scandal that saw ad dollars flow to Liberal-connected ad firms in Quebec, Ottawa approved new rules in 2003 aimed at ensuring contracts are won on merit. Mr. Albania, who has no obvious political connections, appears to have figured out what it takes to navigate the system created by the bureaucracy that grades bids on a 1,000-point scale. Acart secured a coveted spot in a pre-approved pool of ad firms that can submit bids and continues to win contracts with near-perfect scores.
Public Works data shows Acart won $13.1-million in contracts between April 1, 2009, and Dec. 13, 2011. That was ahead of $11.7-million in contracts for KBS+P Canada, $11.3-million for Ogilvy Montreal, $4.2-million for WPP Group Canada Communication Ltd. (an umbrella for many companies, including Ogilvy affiliates) and $2-million for Manifest Communications. Overall, Acart won about 26 per cent of the $50.4-million Ottawa spent on ad contracts during that period.
Conservatives have avoided the accusations of ad-contract favouritism that dogged the Liberals. However, the Tories have been criticized for the fact that government-wide spending on advertising has more than tripled since they first won office, growing to $136.3-million in 2009-10 from $41.3-million in 2005-06. Ads tied to the Economic Action Plan's stimulus measures are a big reason for the increase.
Mr. Albania initially agreed to be interviewed and photographed at his Ottawa office, but later declined. He then provided an e-mail statement, noting that his company's bids score well on technical and creative elements in addition to price, and praised the government's contracting process.
"It's uniform. It's open. It's transparent. It's fair," he wrote.
Acart is not a member of the Institute of Communications Agencies – a professional association of ad firms. Mr. Albania said Acart pulled out of ICA because it was too "Toronto-centric," and is instead involved in another industry body called the Trans-Canada Advertising Agency Network focused on smaller Canadian firms.
Bill Whitehead, the managing director of the network, said Mr. Albania's success is due to his good reputation and contacts with Ottawa officials.
"Everyone likes a little guy who makes it good," Mr. Whitehead said.
But there is some grumbling over Acart's success. Some competitors argue the current points system weeds out more creative options.
Public Works is currently seeking industry comment on a "Proposed National Procurement Strategy: Communications Services" aimed at saving money, yet a summary of internal complaints suggests officials want to spend more on ads.
According to the report, "it has also been suggested [by government departments]that the weight currently given to the financial evaluation undermines a department's ability to hire the 'best firm' for the job …"
Ogilvy vice-president Linda Perez expressed similar frustration that the rules appear to reward price above all else. While Ms. Perez said she did not want to talk about competing ad firms, she said Acart seems to win contracts by offering the lowest price.
"Because of the point spread between us and them on the technical bid and the point spread on the total score, it was clear that they underbid us," she said.
Generally speaking, Ms. Perez said the government risks spending money on ads that have less of an impact if it focuses too heavily on price.
"It's about effective advertising," she said. "Better advertising often yields better results."
BY THE NUMBERS
Government spending on ad contracts from April 1, 2009 to December 13, 2011
Acart Communications Inc. $13.1-million
KBS+P Canada Inc. $11.7-million
Ogilvy Montreal Inc. $11.3-million
WPP Group Canada Ltd. (an umbrella organization that includes affiliates of Ogilvy) $4.2-million
Manifest Communications Ltd. $2-million
Poirier Communications Ltd. $1.7-million
M5 Marketing Communications inc. $1.4-million
BCP Ltee. $1.2-million
Quiller & Blake Advertising Ltd. $0.9-million
Target Marketing and Communications $0.7-million
Agency 59 Ltd. $0.5-million
Hewson Bridge and Smith Ltd. $0.5-million
Day Advertising Group Inc. $0.5-million
Communications bleu blanc rouge inc. $0.3-million
Spirit Creative Advertising & Promotion Inc. $0.3-million
Palm + Havas Inc. $0.2-million
McKim Cringan George $31,298
Grey Advertising (Vancouver) Ltd. $20,855
BBDO Canada Inc. $10,500
Amalgame Creative Strategique Inc. $1,299