A Kent lighthouse was the unlikely setting for the laying of battle plans that culminated in this week's recapture of the £47 million Sainsbury's creative account by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.
It was there that eight senior AMV executives gathered to answer a question: How could Sainsbury's be stopped from ending a relationship stretching back 25 years?
Sainsbury's was one of AMV's defining clients and the inspiration for much of its signature work. "Sainsbury's is in the DNA of AMV," Peter Souter, the agency's then executive creative director and owner of the lighthouse, said.
Nevertheless, Sainsbury's dismal trading performance had put an inevitable strain on the alliance. And when Stephen Nelson, the company's marketing director, phoned Cilla Snowball, the AMV chairman, to confirm the business was going up for pitch, the news failed to shock.
AMV's only comfort was that the uncertainty was over. "It was almost a relief," Farah Ramzan Golant, AMV's chief executive, admitted. For Souter, the repitch provided the chance to become Sainsbury's agency of choice rather than the one the current management had inherited.
What's more, AMV was cheered by the fact that popular opinion was running in its favour. "Industry sentiment was positive in a way that I've never experienced before," Michael Baulk, the AMV group chairman, said.
Snowball claimed that resignation of the business was not an option, but AAR research showed that just 5 per cent of incumbent agencies retained business in repitches.
AMV approached the pitch by asking itself how, if it were a rival, it would try to snatch the business. The executives at the lighthouse included Sarah Douglas, the Sainsbury's board account director, Craig Mawdsley, the planning chief on the account, and the two most senior creatives, Mike Durban and Tony Strong. Bridget Angear, AMV's deputy head of planning, and Ian Pearman, a head of client services, were there too.
Angear and Pearman's presence was important because neither had worked on the account. They took an objective view and acted as a sounding board for the team's ideas. "It was important that we didn't jettison what we knew and brought the experiences of others to bear," Ramzan Golant explained.
Equally important to AMV was that it should make the most of the time available to it while the Haystack Group was helping Sainsbury's draw up its shortlist.
The inclusion on it of JWT (later to go head-to-head with AMV) was seen as the most obvious threat. Not only was it getting its act together under Nick Bell, a former AMV senior creative, but it had links to Sainsbury's via its WPP parent (Lambie-Nairn, the design specialist, and Millward Brown, the research company, both WPP subsidiaries, had Sainsbury's as a client). Moreover, JWT had just hired Mark Cadman and Russell Lidstone, the senior suit and planning director respectively on Lowe's Tesco account.
The overriding worry, however, was that Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP's chief executive, would win the day. Desperate to placate the stock market by filling the gap left by Boots, Sorrell was sparing no effort. Indeed, he was reported to have met with Sainsbury's chiefs as recently as Tuesday last week in a bid to swing the business WPP's way.
The two-hour pitch on 24 March to a Sainsbury's team led by Nelson, Helen Buck, the Sainsbury's director of brand communications, and Haystack's Suki Thompson, was unnerving. The Sainsbury's executives had agreed to play it like a poker game, asking little and not allowing their faces to betray their feelings. Souter, who led the AMV contingent, vowed to go for broke. "I played it like we'd already lost," he said.
What AMV was not told until Nelson addressed the agency bar on Tuesday evening, was that it had hit the bull's-eye. Nelson and his people agreed AMV had set a standard others would be hard-pressed to exceed.
What AMV has actually come up with remains under wraps. All that's known is that the advertising will be distinctly different and that a new strapline will replace "Making life taste better".
And what of Jamie Oliver, the brand's frontman? AMV introduced him and defended him through several regimes. Although Sainsbury's health was improving, Oliver's popularity was waning. So much so that he did not figure in Sainsbury's original agency brief and reappeared only when his school dinners crusade took off. AMV and JWT presented work with and without the chef but it is odds-on he'll stay.
Meanwhile, despondency reigned at JWT. The agency had up to 80 people working on the pitch and there was huge disappointment at what it saw as Sainsbury's not following through on its declared agenda for change.
"It was a close call," Buck acknowledged. "But, in the end, it was AMV that produced the best work."
Perspective, page 23
THE STORY OF A PITCH
February 2005 Sainsbury's calls review of its £47 million account out of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.
March JWT, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Leo Burnett shortlisted to pitch against AMV.
April Creative ideas from AMV and JWT go into research. AMV retains the business.