CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - ORANGE. Is Orange ready for a Mother makeover?

Jeremy Dale has provoked controversy by appointing Mother, Jenny Watts writes.

It was not a shoe-in. Jeremy Dale, Orange's marketing director, may have appointed Mother, which everyone knows is his favourite agency, but all the evidence suggests that it came at the end of a fair and extremely competitive pitch.

The Clerkenwell hotshop and its maverick business practices have fought off Bartle Bogle Hegarty's One2One experience, M&C Saatchi's legendary networking abilities and, of course, WCRS, the birthplace of the brand in 1994.

The rumour mill has been in overdrive since the pitch for the £43 million account was called six weeks ago. Tales of orange-bedecked offices, orange monkeys and outlandish stories of Dale being spotted leaving the Mother founder Robert Saville's house have abounded.

Dale has high hopes for the brand, but insiders say none of the four pitching presentations stood out. Even Dale admits that none of the agencies hit the bull's-eye: "When we retreated after the first two days we were a bit disappointed because we'd hoped we might have got closer to something we could have run tomorrow."

However, Mother's pitch won the day. An abundance of work - enough for three years, Dale says - was presented. It was "based on a very robust strategy, true and consistent to the Orange brand". And true to Mother's style of advertising, Dale confirms that the spots use humour: "Some elements of the range of communications make you smile."

He also denies Orange's marketing team was split over the appointment: "For everyone on the team, Mother was the first choice."

And Dale's proven chemistry with Mother, which created the ITV Digital "monkey" campaign that put him on the map, can't have hindered the process.

Gwyn Jones, the managing director of BBH, says: "If no clear winner emerges, maybe the sensible course of action is to work with the people you know how to work with. The rest of us had an opportunity to do something to convince them otherwise - unfortunately, clearly in their eyes, we didn't."

Dale is keen to pour cold water on accusations that he advised Mother on its pitch strategy and that the agency had a longer pitch time than the other competing shops. "Mother actually had to do more in my mind to win it than anyone else," Dale says.

"If I wanted Mother to get it I would have appointed it straight off, and not had a pitch. Why would I have created such a strong list otherwise?"

"The easiest decision would be not to go with us," George Bryant, one of Mother's pitch leaders, agrees. "Approaching this, it was a case of we were damned if we do and damned if we don't. But at the end of all that, don't judge until you see the work."

"I'm not particularly interested whether it was a fair fight or not," Moray MacLennan, the joint chief executive of M&C Saatchi, says. "Incidentally I think it probably was. The fact is we lost, it's history, and I'm already on to the next one."

Still, accusations of it being a shoe-in to Mother abound. "If people want to think that, fine," Dale says.

This points to a naivety on his part, as feelings are running high at some of the losing agencies. "I think he'd convinced himself he genuinely wanted to do the review, but didn't realise he wanted to give it to Mother so much," a source says.

So how will Mother's hotshop culture cope with such a massive, labour-intensive account. "We wouldn't do it unless we felt we could accommodate it," Mother's Stef Calcraft says. "We have gone through exactly what resources we'll apply with Orange."

And the 70-strong Mother believes its size and ethos is where its efficiency lies. Mother's Yan Elliott adds: "All the best work I've ever done is when I'm flat out. And we all do a multitude of roles at Mother, so you don't have to go through 30 people first."

Saville states: "We'll always put the Mother brand ahead of any financial gain. Nothing's changed about our principles, and here are people who bought that."

WCRS's chairman, Robin Wight, refers to Mother's appointment as "a brave decision by a very brave client". Mother's history of irreverent, but successful, advertising jars with many people's perception of the Orange brand.

Wight adds: "This is clearly a tremendous coup for Mother. No-one should underestimate what it can do for Orange. It's created a new vernacular with its style of advertising, though it has never been employed on such a serious, important brand before." Detractors highlight the demise of ITV Digital, which came about despite the best efforts of Dale and Mother.

Wight is right: Dale is acting bravely. He has moved one of the country's most high-profile accounts without the safety blanket of research and in only six weeks. And in hiring Mother, Orange and its France Telecom parent are swimming against a strong tide. This year Vodafone has signed up J. Walter Thompson to work with Wieden & Kennedy and T-Mobile has consolidated into Saatchi & Saatchi. The debt-laden mobile industry is looking to make savings wherever possible, so much so that the hiring of Mother is an anomaly.

But this could be to Dale's short-term advantage. Agency consolidation and cost-cutting has seen the mobile networks producing slick but all-too similar campaigns. Mother's work will stand out when it debuts in the New Year, Dale says: "It's a transparent business. Wait and see the work."