Even though it had been mooted for months, last week's announcement by Woolworths that it is to review its £25 million creative account still took a few people by surprise.
After all, only three weeks ago, the retailer declared itself on track for a sharp profits recovery after a better-than-expected performance before Christmas.
At Bates UK, the Woolworths incumbent for 17 years, senior managers also believed the worst was behind them. Recent rocky relations with their client, not helped by the disparaging remarks by the actor Paul Kaye about his appearances in the brand's TV ads, seemed to have been overcome.
Moreover, research feedback for the upcoming campaign had convinced the agency that its tenure was secure.
"We knew Woolworths had been having conversations but we thought the problem had gone away," a Bates executive says. "The review was a real shock."
Actually, the momentum for a pitch was well advanced, driven by a new regime at Woolworths with an agenda for change. As Toby Hoare, the Bates chairman, puts it: "Woolworths has to get this out of its system."
At the same time, the seeds of discontent with current arrangements seem to have taken root. Associates of Octavia Morley, Woolworths' marketing director, talk of her disquiet about Bates' speed of response and some slack account management.
What's more, her boss, the Woolworths group chief executive, Trevor Bish-Jones, was pushing through a radical restructuring and refocusing of the business to take it more upmarket.
These changes needed to be reflected in the advertising. But because Christmas and Easter are the store's key trading periods, Morley was aware that she had only two "windows of opportunity" in which to call a review. It was either now or wait until the spring.
Morley denies any relationship problem with Bates, which has been invited to repitch, but insists that creativity must match what Woolworths wants to become.
"We're looking at lots of ideas for 2003 and we want the very best agency resource to work with," she says. "We have to challenge customer perceptions of our brand."
Woolworths' problem is that most of its sales are accounted for by confectionery, CDs, DVDs and videos - all low-margin items. Now its aim is to make more of its core market, mothers with children aged under 12, who account for 29 per cent of its customers but 80 per cent of its sales. That means persuading them to buy products with higher margins such as children's clothing and furniture.
To that end, Bish-Jones is trying to revamp Woolworths product ranges and stores around the themes of festivities and children. His plan is to introduce items that wouldn't look out of place in The Conran Shop, but still at Woolworths' low prices.
It's a risky move. For one thing, the recession is likely to lead to a slow-down in the growth of consumer spend with retailers. "This isn't a good time to be considering a new approach," Richard Hyman, the chairman of the retail analyst Verdict Research, says. "Woolworths is in for a tough period."
For another, it takes the brand into territory already occupied by supermarkets and specialist shops, including Marks & Spencer and Next, which have the upmarket credentials Woolworths lacks.
Never before has there been such a need for the kind of advertising Woolworths has always found elusive, a strong branding campaign into which individual product messages can be fitted. Not easy when its agency is churning out more than 200 commercials a year, many of them supplier-funded films promoting the latest CDs.
Woolworths' perceived weakness has been its generalist offering and its difficulty in defining what it is. "The most successful retailers are famous for something," Hyman adds. "I can well see how a different approach to Woolworths' advertising may be required."
The agencies contacted by Morley reflect her demand for a combination of cut-through creativity with the resources to handle a complex business.
McCann-Erickson clearly has the systems in place to service the Woolworths account and the company's marketers are said to rate Chris Hunton, its new chief executive. Meanwhile, Leo Burnett's work for McDonald's, which blends branding and product, matches the Woolworths brief. WCRS makes the cut because of its work for Debenhams, while Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners is in contention after its work for Halifax.
Bartle Bogle Hegarty's unhappy experiences with WH Smith and Asda have left question marks over whether retail will ever fit comfortably at the agency. However, the recent arrival of the £15 million KFC creative assignment is seen as confirmation that the agency has learned to handle complex and high-volume business.
For TBWA/London, the arrival of Woolworths would be a defining moment in its ambition to sit alongside the likes of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO as a UK agency powerhouse. Its work for French Connection is likely to stand it in good stead. Also, the fact it produces more than 50 TV commercials a year for News International underlines its ability to take on labour-intensive accounts.
And what are the chances of Bates hanging on to the business? Slim to none, the cynics claim. Privately, the agency's senior managers insist their understanding of the Woolworths business accumulated over many years can't easily be replicated elsewhere. But they also acknowledge that they have no more cards left to play.
"We've done all we can to address Woolworths' concerns and our new creative work is fantastic," a Bates insider says. "I don't know what more we can do."