CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/MARS - D'Arcy and Mars go separate ways after 40 years. D'Arcy might find the loss of its Mars account hard to weather, John Tylee writes

There's to be no golden wedding for D'Arcy and Mars, only a divorce to end a marriage stretching back almost half a century but which, in recent years, had grown loveless and mutually miserable.

Indeed, it's a measure of the communication breakdown between agency and client that only 18 months ago, D'Arcy senior managers discussed getting their retaliation in first and firing the confectionery-to-catfood giant.

True, the matter never made it on to the D'Arcy boardroom agenda and would probably have been given short shrift if it had. As D'Arcy McManus Masius, the network built its business across Europe on the back of Mars and its achievement was the best possible demonstration of an ability to handle demanding advertisers. By 2000, though, the exasperation at what had degenerated into a perpetual war of attrition was being felt at the highest levels of the network.

"We weren't making any money or any great ads and it was no fun,

a former D'Arcy senior executive, closely connected with the account, recalls.

"There was other food business to go for and the relationship was so bad we'd have been better off walking away from it."

Mars has always been a client more tolerated than loved and seen as a major contributor to network overheads rather than as a source of profit.

D'Arcy claims its revenue from Mars has dropped by more than 100 per cent in the past five years to an all-time low.

Creative freedom was seen to be tolerated only on less significant domestic products such as Maltesers. Global brands remained tied to tried and trusted formulaic advertising. "Mars' strength lies in product-based 'reason why' advertising,

an industry source explains. "It's comfortable with breeder endorsement for Pedigree Chum and claiming that 'eight out of ten cats prefer Whiskas'. But it gets nervous when it moves into areas it doesn't know."

Moreover, many senior executives within Mars' roster networks believe they are often the victims of internal power plays. "Some Mars people use their roles in a very political manner,

one says. "They feel they have a mandate from the family to throw their weight around. "

To make matters worse, Mars is perceived as displaying a malevolent streak fuelled by not having to justify its actions to shareholders. Nobody has forgotten what happened seven years ago when Forrest and John Mars, enraged by Maurice Saatchi's ousting, took their revenge by stripping Saatchi & Saatchi's Bates subsidiary of all their business.

There has been speculation that D'Arcy's dumping by Mars could have equally profound repercussions. This summer Bcom3, the holding company comprising D'Arcy and Leo Burnett, will be sold to the Publicis group.

The impending purchase has raised the possibility that D'Arcy could be subsumed into Burnett or merged with Saatchis. Publicis sources deny this, insisting that the Mars loss changes nothing and that D'Arcy will remain a standalone operation.

So where did it all go wrong for D'Arcy? One suggestion is that Mars' refusal to share a communications holding company with Nestle was the final straw.

More likely is that it was the result of an accumulation of events. The ending of friendships between senior individuals, a failure to heed danger signals and too much chopping and changing at the top of the account teams all seem to have contributed to the breakdown of the marriage.

Some trace the roots of the problem back to the retirement of Roy Bostock, the D'Arcy worldwide boss, who had a strong relationship with the Mars brothers. John Farrell, D'Arcy's chief executive, acknowledged that the network may have become a hostage to history. In a memo to senior staff he admitted: "Past allegiances may have hurt us with certain individuals at key positions in Mars today."

Others, though, believe the origins of the breakdown lie in Bostock's over-reaction to the contest for the Mars business cut loose from Bates in March 1995. He is said to have changed personnel on the pan-European account in a bid to pick up the business, setting in motion a train of events that culminated in last week's firing.

When the Mars Bar business was reviewed in the middle of last year, it was clear the game was up. "The repitch was a total foul-up,

a senior staffer admits. "Psychologically we'd already written it off."

The clincher was D'Arcy's closure of of its St Louis office whose sole raison d'etre was Mars. The network claimed its Missouri outpost was unprofitable but Mars liked the people there and resisted all attempts to have its business transferred to Los Angeles. Publicly, Mars accepted the decision, but privately it was furious.

That fury has translated into a coup for TBWA/Chiat/Day in Los Angeles, the major beneficiary from D'Arcy's firing. Mars' decision to award the Whiskas, Uncle Ben's and Seeds of Change brands to the West Coast shop is in line with its tactic of bringing "challenger

agencies into the game in order to keep roster networks on their toes. BBDO will be more reassured by the assignment of Skittles, which may have been expected to fit alongside Grey's Starburst account.

A TURBULENT MARRIAGE: D'Arcy's years on the Mars business

Early 50s Mars appoints the then D'Arcy McManus Masius to its roster.

1955 Agency introduces first Mars Bar commercials to run on TV and in cinemas using the slogan: "Mars are marvellous."

1959 Introduction of new nourishment-based strategy for Mars encapsulated in the line: "A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play."

1984 D'Arcy McManus Masius merges with Benton & Bowles to create DMB&B.

1986 D'Arcy launches Dolmio sauces. Product becomes brand leader, a position it still holds.

1988 D'Arcy wins £4 million launch of Applause, a new countline. Leo Burnett dropped from Mars roster. DMB&B wins Milky Way in New York and Twix and Balisto in St Louis.

1995 Picks up accounts for ice-cream versions of Galaxy Dove, Mars Bar, Opal Fruits and Twix. Total Mars billings with the network estimated at £234 million.

1996 D'Arcy gains Maltesers from Grey, where ad message has remained unchanged for 30 years. Agency changes strategy from lightness to lightheartedness.

Also wins Revels, unsupported for the previous 20 years. Later produces commercial spoofing Russian roulette sequence in The Deer Hunter.

1997 D'Arcy loses Whiskas UK account to M&C Saatchi. It is compensated with other business including Cesar and Catsan litter.

1999 DMB&B's lacklustre creative performance on all but some local brands believed to be putting its future place in the Mars roster in jeopardy, as company reviews its entire global ad strategy. Relief as it opts to retain the status quo.

2000 Mars calls review of D'Arcy's £30 million global Twix business amid concern that the chocolate-covered biscuit lacks a clear-cut identity and global strategy. D'Arcy repitches unsuccessfully and business is awarded to Grey.

May 2001 Mars calls review of pan-European Mars Bar creative account out of D'Arcy after persistent rumours about company's unhappiness with agency's performance. Seven months later, Grey is awarded the business, estimated to be worth £10 million.

June 2001 D'Arcy's relationship with Mars in Europe hangs by a thread, as company reviews the network's £24 million Uncle Ben's pan-European account.

October 2001 Deteriorating relationship between Mars and D'Arcy is confirmed as Uncle Ben's business moves to BBDO.

2002 D'Arcy closes its St Louis office, which is almost exclusively devoted to Mars business. It claims the office is unprofitable. Mars accepts the decision publicly but privately is furious. D'Arcy is subsequently fired from all its global Mars business. Whiskas, Uncle Ben's and Seeds of Change are awarded to TBWA/Chiat/Day in Los Angeles. Skittles goes to BBDO.