Agencies await govt Covid ad pitch after MullenLowe’s £24m contract runs out

Engine has been handed responsibility for the work on a temporary basis.

MullenLowe: Covid-19 campaigns this year included the powerful 'Look into my eyes'
MullenLowe: Covid-19 campaigns this year included the powerful 'Look into my eyes'

Creative agencies on the government roster are preparing for a likely pitch for the next stage of communications on the national response to Covid-19, after MullenLowe London’s contract ran out. 

The Interpublic agency was appointed last April on a six-month contract, with an option to extend for a further six months. Once the 12 months were up, the government was required to stop working with MullenLowe. The agency’s last work under the contract was a campaign depicting the NHS staff and volunteers carrying out the national vaccination programme.

At this point, responsibility for creating Covid campaigns was handed on an interim basis to Engine, which is contracted as the government’s standby agency. Campaign understands some staff have transferred to Engine under TUPE following the move.

Sources told Campaign that in addition to the duration of the contract expiring, it had also reached its maximum value – an additional reason that MullenLowe could not be given any further work under the existing arrangement.

Campaign previously reported that MullenLowe was paid £12.2m for its work on Covid campaigns in 2020, including a monthly peak of £2.2m in December. 

This figure, however, was surpassed in each of the first three months of 2021. Cabinet Office data shows that payments to MullenLowe for Covid comms totalled £2.5m in January, and £2.4m in February, before hitting £3m in March – a total of £7.9m over the quarter.

The original contract, which can be found here, was worth £16m, and government rules allow for budgets to be exceeded by 50%, suggesting the total MullenLowe will receive for the work is likely to hit £24m. When Campaign put this figure to the government, it declined to comment.

Engine, meanwhile, was paid a total of £1.48m by the Covid-19 national response comms hub on 26 and 29 March, and a further £1.63m on 1 April, after receiving no payments for this work previously.

Engine's contract, designating it as the standby agency, runs for an initial two years starting in February 2020, with an option to extend for a further two years.

The money paid to MullenLowe and Engine is separate from the account's media budget, which goes through the government's buying agency Manning Gottlieb OMD.

The government's total media spend on coronavirus communications was more than £170m in 2020 and is likely to have exceeded £200m by now, based on previous Cabinet Office disclosures.

A government spokesman told Campaign: “Our procurement arrangements mean that we use a number of different agencies for public information campaigns. MullenLowe has been our lead agency on Covid-19 communications for most of the pandemic emergency, and have now reached the end of their contract for this work.

“We would like to thank MullenLowe for all their work during this exceptionally demanding period.”

MullenLowe declined to comment.

The Covid work meant MullenLowe was the only shop in the Top 10 UK agencies by billings to grow in 2020, according to estimates by Nielsen, rocketing into third place from 37th in 2019 with a more than sevenfold rise to £315.51m.

MullenLowe also received a mark of eight out of nine in Campaign's School Reports and joint head of account management Katie McCambley won Campaign's account person of the year for 2020 after co-ordinating the 50-strong multi-disciplinary team handling the government's Covid campaigns. 

Campaign understands there will be a pitch for another fixed contract, but the government declined to say when this would take place. A source suggested this was not called before the previous contract ran out because of the difficulty in predicting the impact the pandemic would continue to have, and therefore the volume of work required. 

The UK has made significant progress on vaccinations since the start of 2021 and is behind only the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain on the number of doses given per head of population, among countries with at least one million people – although the number of individuals having received at least one dose may vary between countries. 

As vaccination rates have increased, the numbers of Covid infections and deaths have fallen sharply. However, there are currently concerns that the recent spread of the Indian variant could delay the planned end to social distancing restrictions on 21 June.