M&C Saatchi knew the game was up when the front page of The Daily Telegraph's business section on Monday led with the line: "British Airways dumps Saatchi."
The agency, aware that the Telegraph's columnist Jeff Randall had interviewed BA's chief executive on Sunday, now knew that its relationship with its £60 million flagship client was about to end and that the three-month pitch process, which kicked off on 4 July, was over.
M&C PREPARES FOR BATTLE
From the moment the press release announcing the creative review was sent out on 4 July, the odds seemed stacked against M&C. Its closest allies at BA had moved on and with a new team in place, led by the chief executive, Willie Walsh, change seemed very much on the airline's agenda.
M&C's pitch was scheduled for 9 September, a full week ahead of its rivals.
This gave the agency less time to prepare after the four shortlisted agencies - Bartle Bogle Hegarty, M&C, JWT and DDB London - attended the airline's briefings, dubbed "deep soak", on 28 and 29 July.
M&C rallied, quickly announcing the appointment of a new creative director, Graham Fink, who would lead the pitch based on the strategic line "just imagine". But the pre-pitch pressure was then intensified as M&C was brought in to respond to the summer strike by BA's outside catering company, which left thousands of passengers grounded and furious.
To make matters worse, M&C was forced to fire one of its planners after he accidentally sent a spoof e-mail to Martin George, the airline's commercial director and one of the key decision-makers on the pitch. It included derogatory comments about George.
Meanwhile, the rival agencies were working hard on their bids for the business: WPP-owned JWT's pitch was led by its New York-based global chief executive, Bob Jeffrey, and its global creative director, Craig Davis.
Its pitching line was rumoured to be "If you care about A to B. BA", something the agency denies.
DDB London rapidly became the bookies' favourite. It pitched with the line "explore" and it was said to have been confident immediately after its presentation in mid-September.
THE STORY ENDS
In the closing stages of the pitch, when the pundits' winners predictions were split between DDB and BBH, JWT appeared to make a last- minute come back.
Some believe the agency suggested BA might like to split the account between BBH and JWT, mirroring the relationship the two agencies have with Vodafone. Given that WPP's annual travel expenditure with BA is estimated at £30 million, such a suggestion is said to have been treated very politely.
However, JWT's efforts were not rewarded and on Tuesday George made the calls the losing agencies had been dreading. The first was to M&C, followed by DDB and JWT.
BBH was formally notified at lunchtime that its "upgrade to BA" strategy had triumphed. There were signs that the agency already knew, however, with whispers that remuneration talks took place early last week.
The BBH team went out for lunch before a conference call with the airline in the afternoon to discuss details of the transition, which will take place on 14 November.
The airline and agency's focus will now be trained on the huge challenge ahead for BA: its move to Terminal Five at Heathrow in 2008.
M&C Saatchi, meanwhile, appears to have come out fighting. Moray MacLennan, the agency's UK chairman, said: "The agency is confident and energised, perhaps in part by recent events."
It took out a bullish double-page spread in Wednesday's edition of The Times, claiming it was "taking new airline bookings".
- Perspective, page 23
THE FOUR SLOGANS BBH - Upgrade to BA JWT - If you care about A to B. BA M&C - Just imagine DDB - Explore DEFINING MOMENTS 1981: British Airways hires Saatchi & Saatchi 1983 Launch of "Manhattan landing" TV spot 1987: BA floats on the Stock Exchange 1989: "Face" campaign launches in 33 countries 1995: BA moves its global business to the fledgling M&C Saatchi after a competitive pitch against three agencies: Bartle Bogle Hegarty, JWT and Saatchi & Saatchi 1997: "PJ O'Rourke" TV ad runs 2003: "Times Square" ad runs in 25 countries 2005: Bartle Bogle Hegarty wins £60 milllion BA account after pitch against M&C Saatchi, DDB London and JWT