Budget choices: Army grounds pilots, approves $200 million for marketing

Combat pilots got nothing on Mad Men.

With Army fliers grounded and soldiers’ training on hold due to sequestration and Washington’s endless budget fight, the Army last week awarded $192 million to advertising giant McCann Worldgroup for another year’s worth of marketing designed to make the Army look good enough to join.

McCann is the ad firm that birthed the slogan “Army Strong.” On Tuesday, the Army made its third annual payment, the second of four option years, on a contract that has a five-year, $565 million cap. It comes as Pentagon officials have told Congress and the public that mandatory defense spending cuts have forced commanders to make tough choices that could sacrifice military readiness.

So what’s with spending almost $200 million for things like television commercials and online recruitment ad campaigns?

“It's obviously a very different environment that we’re operating in, but the reality is even in this fiscal environment we still need a quality, all-volunteer force,” said Ali Bettancourt, spokeswoman for Army Research and Marketing Group, in an interview. “And the challenge of recruiting that force doesn’t go away.”

The Army expects to fall short of its recruiting goal for the Army Reserves this year, Bettancourt said. It’s the only service branch in the military not meeting its recruiting goal for the current fiscal year. It also would be the first time the Army did not meet its recruitment goal for the Reserves since 2006, at the height of violence in the Iraq war. That year, the Army signed up 25,378 people, just short of its goal of 25,500. By comparison, in fiscal 2013 through February, the last month for which data is available, the Reserves had signed just 10,531 new recruits, or only 88 percent of its year-to-date goal.

Bettancourt said that the McCann contract was a must. If it did not make the payment, the Army would be left with a significant advertising and marketing services gap until it could reopen a new contract bid from scratch. Instead, the Army has agreed to approve the money, but that does not mean they have to spend it all, she said. McCann’s contract is a multiyear, firm fixed-price contract, which Bettancourt noted is designed to save taxpayer money by preventing cost inflation during the life of the agreement.

“The contract is for advertising services in support of recruiting and retention programs across the active and reserve force,” said Matthew Bourke, spokesman at Army headquarters in the Pentagon. “The value announced last week, $192,114,076, is the total maximum value of the option.”

According to AdWeek, the contract is expected to net McCann a profit of $15 million to $20 million, per year.

The Army, like the other military branches, has cancelled some of its most obvious pomp and circumstance to save money. The annual black-tie Birthday Ball planned for June was scrubbed for a $400,000 savings. Service bands have been absent from many public performances. And the Navy has cancelled its famous Fleet Week port call on New York City.

“We’ve been looking pretty hard at our programs and our advertising and looking at ways to be more efficient and innovative,” Bettancourt said. They have grounded the Golden Knights parachute team, one of the service’s marquis public relations tools, which falls under her office’s budget. They’ve also cut back on their own travel budget and halted the “Army Experience” tour, a mobile recruiting truck that visits high schools.

Ironically, Bettancourt’s own office is a product of the Army trying to become more efficient. It was created in August, along with several other smaller offices, after the larger U.S. Army Accessions Command was scrubbed.