Millennium row as Saatchi wins pounds 16m contract

Cathy Newman

The controversy surrounding the millennium celebrations intensified yesterday when the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC), the group organising the festivities, awarded a pounds 16m advertising account for the project to M&C Saatchi, one of whose partners has been advising the NMEC since February.

Bill Muirhead, a partner at M&C Saatchi, has been giving "strategic advice" to the NMEC, the public body set up to run the Greenwich-based millennium celebrations. Rival advertising agencies, four of which competed with M&C Saatchi for the prestigious account, have said the outcome of the bidding was a foregone conclusion.

While in opposition, Labour said it was investigating Mr Muirhead's role at NMEC. He was a key adviser to the Conservative Party during the 1992 general election, and was not interviewed for his advisory role at the NMEC.

However, a spokesman for Peter Mandelson, the minister without portfolio who is responsible for the millennium project, seemed satisfied yesterday with the appointment of M&C Saatchi: "We have nothing to add to the NMEC's announcement," he said.

A spokesman for the NMEC defended the decision: "We needed strategic advice on marketing and Bill very kindly helped us out with that. Over the last six months he has played less and less of a role."

Mr Muirhead had not been paid for his work since February, the spokesman added. "He was advising at board level, but had no formal contract or title." Mr Muirhead could not be contacted for comment.

Other agencies who pitched for the business included Abbott Mead Vickers and TBWA/Simons Palmer.