In terms of sheer scale, it's doubtful whether adland has ever seen anything quite like the race about to begin for the estimated £90 million Boots integrated account.
The field is of London Marathon proportions. At least 20 agencies, ranging from creative powerhouses to PR consultancies, are forming some unlikely alliances to capture the prize.
Not since the BBC filled a London theatre to overflowing with agency executives contesting its TV Licensing business two years ago has something so ambitious taken place.
Indeed, a senior manager at one of the competing shops calculates that between 300 and 400 agency staff are involved on the retailer's brief in some way. "I don't think even Boots has any idea what an extensive operation this has become," he says.
All of which may help explain why old barriers are breaking down and new alliances are being formed to meet what is acknowledged to be the most complex of briefs.
Moreover, the competing agencies know that their boasts about being able to deliver integrated marketing solutions will be tested as never before when they put their proposals to Boots in mid-November.
"We won't be able to fake this," one agency boss admits. "If the team that presents isn't seen to be motivated and happy to be working together it will be exposed."
The budget may be huge, but so is the task. Boots wants a definitive masterplan for a complete Marks & Spencer-style makeover that will halt years of underperformance on the high street. That means everything from the look of its 1,400 stores to a consistent positioning capable of being communicated across all media.
The pitch process and those chosen to take part very much reflect the personality and agenda of Ann Francke, hired by Boots as its director of strategic marketing and development at the beginning of this year.
Creatively led and with an agenda for change, Francke has taken the unusual step of selecting the creative agencies - Publicis, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Mother and the incumbent, J. Walter Thompson - to vie for the business and is having them choose the pitching partners they think best equipped to tackle the task.
Her requirements cover a number of key categories: creative, in-store, direct marketing, customer relationship marketing, PR, media planning and media buying. "This pitch won't be won by advertising alone," an insider says. "One big creative idea won't be enough."
It's also indicative of Francke's thinking that she intends to make co-ordination of the message the responsibility of the lead agency by handing over a single cheque and having the agency divide it among the other alliance members.
But why, having employed the WPP group to handle its entire communications programme and chosen to review the business, would Boots want to set up a similar arrangement elsewhere?
The answer, according to industry sources, is that while the company liked the philosophy of the deal, thrashed out between its then chief executive, Steve Russell, and his WPP counterpart, Sir Martin Sorrell, they were disappointed with the results. "Boots is keen on the 'joined-up' approach but is looking for more flexibility than WPP alone could give it," one says.
The point hasn't been lost on the WPP-owned JWT. Facing the prospect of an end to its nine-year tenure on the business, the agency has teamed up with nine other operations, only three of which are part of the WPP stable, in order to maintain its grip on the account.
The inclusion of Freud Communications on JWT's team is a measure of how old loyalties have disappeared. Once Freud was part of the AMV empire. Two years and a £10 million management buyout later, it finds itself up against its one-time parent.
With big budgets at stake, however, pragmatism prevails. AMV has lined up its below-the-line associate, Proximity, to pitch alongside it, leaving the AMV group-owned Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel to provide the direct marketing specialism for the Mother-led alliance.
Another factor is how important the existing connections between the pitching agencies and the client will prove. The AMV group's Redwood subsidiary already produces the Boots Health & Beauty magazine and Francke enjoyed a good relationship with AMV when she was the European vice-president of petcare marketing for Mars.
For Publicis, the ace in the hole is Richard Baker, recently appointed by Boots as its chief executive. A former marketing director of the agency's Asda client, his brief is to stop Boots stumbling from crisis to crisis and the supermarket groups from gnawing away at its high-margin business.
Another issue is the anomalous position of 20/20, the design group already working with Boots. The company, which created Boots' most recent interiors concept, an experimental convenience store in London's Holborn, will provide input for any of the pitch teams should they want it.
JWT has declined, preferring to go in to bat alongside its WPP design stablemate, The Partners. Publicis may have little choice but to fall into line. Already having to look outside for a PR partner, the agency is also hampered by not being able to call on the services of a wholly owned design company.
The other concern to the competing teams is whether Baker and Francke will hit if off. "While Francke is very 'touchy-feely', Baker, with his Asda background, has a much harder nose," a source close to the pitch says. "I fear their relationship will go pop."
If it does, some believe any new agency alignments may not survive. "Such arrangements invariably come to grief," a leading industry consultant warns. "Also, the more complex the arrangement, the more difficult it is to manage. If Boots were my client, I would be trying to persuade it to do something rather more conventional."
THE PITCH LINE-UP
ABBOTT MEAD VICKERS BBDO (lead), PHD (media planning and buying), Proximity (direct marketing), Redwood (contract publishing), Fishburn Hedges (PR)
J. WALTER THOMPSON (lead), MindShare (media planning and buying), OgilvyOne (DM and CRM), The Partners (design), Exposure (brand exploitation, ambient media and guerrilla marketing), Haygarth (sales promotion), Portland Outdoor (outdoor media), Virgile & Stone (retail design), Freud Communications (PR), PiranahKid (PR), Shire Health Group (healthcare)
PUBLICIS (lead), ZenithOptimedia (media planning and buying). Other partners undisclosed.
MOTHER (lead) MediaCom (media buying) Naked (media planning and communication strategy), Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel (DM and CRM).