While the account will struggle to hit the £250m the Government communications agency spent in 2008/09, it is still a massive deal, to be fought out by Starcom MediaVest Group and I-Level, pitching as Smile (see what they did there?), a GroupM collaboration called M4C and Aegis Media's Carat, pitching with out-of-home sibling Posterscope.
Omnicom, which handles some COI comms planning through Manning Gottlieb OMD but no media buying, declined to pitch, preferring to concentrate on global accounts. Havas also took a rain check, perhaps deciding it couldn't match the volume buying discounts of its rivals.
Radio Advertising Bureau founder Douglas McArthur, newly appointed chairman of UKOM (see page 12), helped shape COI agency strategy, convincing it to consolidate buying with one supplier, which seems logical in a converging media landscape.
MediaCom currently handles COI's press, while Carat buys TV and cinema and Posterscope outdoor. Starcom looks after radio and I-Level is digital incumbent.
I-Level spoke to everyone before hooking up with Starcom, which is a double-edged sword for the Publicis agency. It will help Smile leverage I-Level's excellent relationship with the COI, which represents 40% of I-Level's turnover and keeps over 40 people busy. But teaming up with a third party sends out mixed messages about Starcom's in-house resource and fudges the COI's criteria of consolidating buying in one agency.
WPP's M4C brings the other GroupM principals, Mindshare and Mediaedge:cia, into the equation, giving COI the option of choosing which agency it works with in particular areas while retaining group buying muscle.
Carat is TV incumbent and has the digital clout of new chief executive Robert Horler, which may be why it didn't bid as an Aegis consortium that would have brought its Isobar digital arm into the mix.
The prize is enormous for whoever comes out on top and the implications of the COI's decision will undoubtedly send shockwaves throughout media in 2010.