CHANGING THE GUARDIANS: Breaking up is hard to do - especially if the relationship has been long-standing and successful

John Tylee examines four cases where clients took their business elsewhere, despite sterling advertising.

Losing a piece of business is rarely an uplifting experience. Disappointment, frustration, anger and the prospect of a dip in income are the more usual characteristics of an account divorce.

Often, though, tensions in the client relationship, a string of rejected creative ideas, a new marketing director or the takeover of the client company mean that the writing is on the wall for all the business-literate to read well before the decree nisi arrives and rival agency vultures circle. When the decision to review finally comes it can be a relief that allows agency and client to move on to more productive things.

But sometimes an advertiser's decision to quit an agency can be so sudden, brutal and unexpected the entire industry reels (while preparing tentative pitch documents for said client, of course).

Advertising's history is peppered with dramatic account moves that defy superficial logic or obvious business sense. The work had seemed good, product had been sold, creative awards had been won and client and agency appeared harmonious (relative though that always is). In truth, with the wisdom of hindsight, the cracks may have been there.

The new marketing chief who reassured the existing agency that he loved its work turns out to have been secretly dating his agency partner from his previous company. Or the client who was determined to fight for his local agency despite pressure to align internationally might not have the power that his local agency persuaded itself he did. Or the client who seemed a beacon of sound and sensible decision-making might wake up one morning and fancy a change.

There's only one thing certain about client relationships: they are never 100 per cent secure. As these four examples testify, change can come when you least expect it, or despite great advertising success. And the agency the client flees to is not necessarily a better place to be.

BRITISH AIRWAYS - Foote Cone & Belding to Saatchi & Saatchi

More than two decades after it happened, British Airways' decision to pull its account out of Foote Cone & Belding and into Saatchi & Saatchi still provokes controversy and questions.

Was the account gifted to the Saatchi brothers by Margaret Thatcher in gratitude for their help in sweeping the Tories into power in 1979? Or did FCB pay the price for its arrogance, for underestimating the agenda for change by its new chairman, Sir John King?

What's certain is that the move broke the back of FCB, which became obsessed by its treatment, just as surely as it fuelled the fortunes of the Saatchis.

The move seemed incomprehensible - FCB's relationship with the airline stretched back to the time when it won the old BOAC account in 1947. Famous slogans such as "Fly the flag" and "We take more care of you" were part of the national vocabulary.

King liked FCB's work but hadn't been able to make the agency understand his need for a campaign that wouldn't just fill more planes but would also boost the morale of his workforce, support him in his battles with the unions and convince ministers to write off the embattled airline's debts.

But not even King anticipated the stink created when the national flag carrier aligned with the Saatchis, to whom he had been introduced by a mutual friend. King has always insisted he never discussed the appointment with Thatcher. "I didn't know at that stage that you couldn't change your ad agency," he said later.

Convinced FCB was the victim of a political stitch-up, Bill Barry, the chief executive, told journalists: "Saatchis has strong political connections and Sir John was appointed by the Prime Minister. Here is a political pay-off."

Stitch-up or not, BA's transformation into "the world's favourite airline" had begun, based on the premise that none of its rivals carried so many international passengers to so many destinations. And it was spectacularly interpreted in Saatchis' debut, where Manhattan island crossed London suburbia.

Today, the Sars epidemic, terrorism fears, strikes and low-cost rivals present BA with its greatest challenges. But the airline's loyalty to the Saatchis, whether at Charlotte Street or Golden Square, seems undiminished.

GUINNESS - JWT to Allen Brady & Marsh to Ogilvy & Mather

When Guinness snatched its advertising account out of J. Walter Thompson and handed it to Allen Brady & Marsh in 1982, the reaction was stunned but far from silent.

JWT had been Guinness' agency of record since 1969 and by 1981 the brand was spending around £7 million on above-the-line advertising. The Guinness toucan had become ingrained in popular culture and JWT had helped position the Guinness brand as a prestige product with a body of award-winning campaigns.

But, by autumn 1981, the new managing director of the Guinness group, Ernest Saunders, decided it was time for a change. Change came swiftly and suddenly and caught the agency, and the industry, unawares. Saunders described the decision to dump JWT unceremoniously as the result of a "major review of communications strategy"; a bewildered Jeremy Bullmore, then JWT's chairman, was rather more specific: 'We were kicked in the balls by Guinness."

JWT received no explanation for the switch, although press reports claimed Saunders, while acknowledging that the brand was holding its own in its market, was convinced that it could do better; he apparently believed JWT would not be capable of altering its approach. Others believed the decision had something to do with the fact that many years earlier, Saunders had himself been exited from his job in the marketing department of JWT.

There also seemed to be a split internally between those at Guinness who wanted to preserve the prestige image JWT had created for the brand, and those who felt Guinness was a working-class drink that required a more working-class positioning.

With the switch to ABM, the toucan, by then one of the best-loved characters in British advertising, was retired in favour of the new Guinness campaign featuring a spoof organisation that helped those without a Guinness.

For all the drama of the ABM appointment, it was a shortlived victory.

Two years later, Guinness was on the move again to Ogilvy & Mather, where it discovered "pure genius". When Saunders later attempted reconciliation with JWT by offering it Harp (without the knowledge of the incumbent agency, ABM), Bullmore was able to reject the offer with some satisfaction; that very morning JWT had been awarded the Skol account.

WEETABIX - Lowe to Banks Hoggins O'Shea/FCB

The advertising had won a string of creative awards and helped propel the brand to leadership of its sector. But such success wasn't enough to sustain Lowe's 12-year hold on the Weetabix account or prevent the ditching of its acclaimed "Withabix/Withoutabix" campaign.

So surprising was the company's November 2001 decision to consolidate its above-the-line advertising within Banks Hoggins O'Shea/FCB that the industry rumour mill suggested money was at the heart of the matter.

Indeed, the new agency was forced to let it be known that its fee proposals were by no means the lowest of the shops jostling for the business.

So if cost-cutting wasn't to blame, what was the real reason for Weetabix jettisoning the agency responsible for some of its most famous campaigns?

Lowe insiders put the split down to its principled stance and a refusal to compromise on a strategy it believed to be right; BHO argues that the Lowe campaign had become too indulgent for its own good.

Lowe still feels sore at what happened. Agency sources say it was made a scapegoat for declining sales that were actually caused by a significant price increase.

At the same time, there seems to have been little meeting of minds between the agency and Bill Humes, the Weetabix commercial director, who it is claimed couldn't be persuaded to allow the advertising to make new converts rather than concentrate on core consumers.

BHO saw things differently. Famous though Lowe's work was, it had become removed from the product, the agency argued. Moreover, Weetabix was spending so much on developing new products that there weren't sufficient funds to support its core brands, Weetabix and Alpen.

As a result, both have been repackaged and have become vehicles for new project launches. Meanwhile, Weetabix has returned to its tried and trusted message that the product is good for you and sets you up for the day, using the message: "Generating energy for everyone."

"It's very important to protect the brand you've created and that you don't stray too far off the path," John Banks, BHO's chairman, says. "Don't let the creative department take it over."

The strategy has allowed Weetabix to snatch back leadership of the UK cereals sector from Kellogg while sales rose to an annualised £355 million last year. But own-label products, a plethora of "eat and go" products and changing breakfast habits represent a perpetual threat.

ORANGE - WCRS to Lowe to Mother

When Hans Snook, then the chief executive of Orange, broke the news to Robin Wight over lunch in August 2000 that the mobile phone giant would be moving its advertising business out of WCRS, one of the strongest and most effective advertising relationships of the decade came crashing down.

The departure of the £30 million Orange business from WCRS is still a talking point today. Not just because the switch from the agency that created the brand to Lowe was shortlived. Or that the latest agency, Mother, has hit controversy with its dramatic change of direction for the telecoms company. But because WCRS had been synonymous with Orange, and vice versa, for the best part of the 90s.

Certainly the use of the Orange colour and beautifully shot TV work cut through the blandness that had characterised much telecoms advertising before and since to create an endlessly campaignable strategy. And effective, too. At the end of their first year working together, WCRS won an IPA Effectiveness Award following its submission that claimed the success of the advertising had added £300 million to the company's market value.

But by 2000, Orange was poised for international expansion after being acquired by France Telecom and WCRS's lack of a strong international network sent the business out to pitch. The fact that the review had actually kicked off several months before France Telecom arrived on the scene was explained as a standard internal review that went external only after the acquisition.

The split was on one level amicable, with Orange rushing to pay tribute to the advertising agency that had established its brand. Orange let it be known that the decision had been taken "with huge reluctance" and Snook made no secret of his personal regard for Wight. "It was one hell of a difficult decision to make, particularly for me as I know Robin so well," he said.

But the bitterness of the loss lingers. Wight has no doubt found much sport in the brand's controversial early shift from Lowe. Snook (no longer the Orange chief, but still a shareholder) was reported as saying of Mother's recent work: "Those hard-nosed businessman ads are absolutely horrible. They're as far away from Orange as it's possible to get."

Mother, for its part, has maintained a dignified silence, allowing the "learn" campaign, fronted by the 13-year-old phone wizard Dylan, to speak for itself.