EDITORIAL: COI is model for US political business

The US government has a history of ruthlessness when it comes to hunting down those it catches with their hands in the taxpayers' till.

A few years ago, a London agency boss who admitted extending creative work to invoices sent to one of her clients - a US government-backed farming co-operative - found herself under investigation by federal agents and up before a Bow Street magistrate fighting an extradition order. The amounts allegedly involved weren't huge, causing some to question whether Washington's pursuit wasn't only vindictive but trivial.

Certainly, the figures pale into insignificance beside the claimed billing irregularities for Leo Burnett's work on the £96 million US Army account.

Or the £1.8 million paid by Ogilvy & Mather to resolve allegations of inflated costs for work on the US government's anti-drugs campaign. Nevertheless, all three cases are indicative of a patriotic intolerence of those deemed to be fiddling US citizens. Financial scandals involving Enron and WorldCom have almost turned the national psyche paranoid.

Now it's the turn of Madison Avenue to feel the heat. It's doubtful that US agencies have any more "rotten apples than any other business, yet their high profiles mean they are soft targets for any US politician on the make. Viewed from this side of the Atlantic, it's impossible not to feel smug and to ask whether the US government has been the partial architect of its own misfortunes.

For all the internal strife currently besetting COI Communications, it's safe to say that the US has nothing to match it. UK agencies respect its collective knowledge and expertise. If COI isn't over-generous with its remuneration, its payments are always fair and prompt - and nobody argues with the rigorous auditing of its roster shops. With no comparable organisation overseeing US government advertising, the potential for fraud is greater.

It's also more likely in a system where ad contracts are often awarded to the lowest bidder rather than the agency with the best strategic and creative proposals.

Without prejudging the allegations against Burnett and O&M, it's obvious that agencies will be tempted to try making money around the edges of an unprofitable piece of government business. Such behaviour can never be condoned - but it is explainable.

So what's to be done? For a start there needs to be much greater transparency, with US government departments and their agencies clear from the outset about what the task is and how much is to be paid for carrying it out. Perhaps COI could offer some advice.

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