There are few less welcome calls just three weeks before Christmas than one which informs an agency it must defend a £44 million account that it has held for 17 years.
Publicis was shocked to learn that its defence had been unsuccessful: Rick Bendel, the former chief operating officer of Publicis, and now newly installed marketing director of Asda, has ditched his old colleagues in favour of its sibling agency, Fallon.
Publicis and Fallon went head to head for the Asda creative account the week before Christmas. Both advocated the dropping of the long-running "Asda Price" positioning, the familiar theme tune and the back pocket-patting ending.
Bendel presented the pitch ideas and his strategy to Asda bosses on the Friday before Christmas. He told Publicis of his decision this Wednesday; Fallon heard the good news from Campaign shortly after.
At Publicis, Bendel had been wedded to the Asda business since the early 90s. When he left, many at the agency felt his move would cement the relationship, not undermine it. But the decision to pit Publicis against Fallon was one of the first Bendel made after taking up his new role in November last year.
It is a bitter blow for Publicis. A source says the agency was prepared to lose a portion of the Asda account - perhaps the George clothing line - but was totally unprepared for the loss of the entire business.
Poacher turned gamekeeper
This week Bendel said: "The reason for the review was that Asda's advertising had become less famous than the supermarket was. The campaign was less coherent. Asda is now in recovery mode and has serious ambitions. The work needs to reflect this."
He denied Fallon's appointment is a criticism of the advertising he presided over while at Publicis. "It's been more than four years since I was directly involved with the account. The first time I saw Asda ads in the past four years has been on a TV in a hotel room," he said.
However, a Publicis source says Bendel was closer to the account than that: "This is him passing judgment on his own legacy. It would be impossible for him to get closer to Asda. He dictated most of the advertising you see."
The new creative approach
Bendel would not confirm that Fallon's winning work will drop the "Asda Price" line. "Watch this space," he said. "Fallon came up with a brilliant idea, which everybody, including the Wal-Mart executives, is very excited about.
"I know the Fallon people well and I'm thrilled for them. This is a defining moment for the agency; it's a time for Fallon to become grown-up."
Robert Senior, the Fallon partner, said: "What better way to start the year than a new partnership born out of shared values and the highest creative ambition for Asda. We couldn't be more excited."
Job losses at Publicis
The loss will lead to redundancies at Publicis, and some staff are expected to move to Fallon under the new Tupe rules. Publicis' chief executive, Tim Lindsay, said: "As unexpected as this decision was, it creates big opportunities. It's the end of an era; sometimes that can be a good thing."
Asda's media came under the spotlight last autumn, although there was no competitive review; the incumbent, Carat, held on to the account. Asked if media would be next on Bendel's review list, he said: "No comment."
- Comment, page 36.