There's something about the hulking COI advertising spend that's making media agencies do the strangest things. Like hardboiled protagonists in a film noir, one insider says those involved "will do whatever is necessary" to get their hands on the £250 million (including online spend) business. While media shops haven't descended into corruption and subterfuge just yet, the industry is seeing convention being neatly sidelined for this pitch.
A case in point is erstwhile rivals i-level and Starcom MediaVest Group holding a shotgun wedding solely to win over the client. For i-level, COI's decision to consolidate its media buying had very unwelcome implications. The incumbent on the COI £40 million digital account lacked traditional media services and could not have vied for the business independently. A partnership with a traditional agency is i-level's only hope of keeping hold of its biggest client.
The agency was not short of potential suitors and it's understood it was in discussions with many of the other networks pitching for the consolidated COI business before deciding on SMG, the incumbent on the COI radio buying account. The confines of the collaboration are simple: i-level will lead the pitch for the digital portion of the business while SMG pitches for the rest. Both will form a bespoke team to manage the business if they win, although the exact details of how the deal will work in practice are yet to be worked out.
Stephen Rust, the digital agency's group chief executive, maintains the partnership isn't just about convenience; it's deeper that that. "From the moment I met Stewart (Easterbrook, the SMG chief), we connected. We saw the market developing in the same way. Forget digital, forget online and offline. It's about the consumer," Rust says.
Forget digital? Surely this is sacrilege coming from the head of an agency renowned for its pioneering evangelism when it comes to all things webbed.
And doesn't this very partnership compartmentalise the medium (not to mention raise question marks over SMG's competence in online)? Not so, according to Rust, who says digital is growing up and i-level, which celebrates its tenth birthday this year, with it. If Rust gets his way, the word digital will be banned from i-level's offices.
"One of the things I am encouraging people here to do is to think very differently about online and stop talking about digital because digital is just an enabler. It has changed the world, but I think it puts blinkers on us if we just keep talking about digital," he says.
Rust has been honing his vision for the company since he replaced David Pattison as the i-level group chief executive in May, with Pattison moving up to the group non-executive chairman role. Rust's plan is to step up the agency's relationship with advertisers and to aim for a more integrated approach. "There is a much greater focus on becoming a communications partner to clients," he says.
The new-model i-level will not be moving away from digital into the realms of, say, TV or posters. But Rust aims to compete directly with the big networks by adopting a more holistic approach when it comes to working with clients on communications: "We are still going to focus on the market that is enabled by digital. But we've just got to think more broadly than the internet."
Rust is used to defying expectations. He initially rebelled against his artistic parents (his dad's a sculptor) by running off to become an accountant. His innate creative leanings eventually emerged and he has held roles such as managing director of The London Design Festival and trustee of the Photographer's Gallery.
Before he joined i-level, he honed his digital credentials as the group chief financial officer for the IMW Group, which comprises The Search Works and The Technology Works. After joining the digital agency as group financial officer in January last year to support the private equity led-management buyout of the company, his speedy elevation to the top role came as a bit of a shock to him. But, Rust says, he loves it.
I-level's founder Andrew Walmsley describes Rust as a natural when it comes to motivating others: "He's a fantastic people manager, with a real sense of how to drive the business forward."
Rust will be putting all of these qualities to use as he works out the exact structure of the proposed COI buying team. He maintains that i-level is open to market opportunities and doesn't rule out further collaboration with other agencies in the future. However, he is adamant the SMG pair-up is specifically for COI.
Undoubtedly i-level has moved to a strong position thanks to the partnership, which is not as impromptu as it first appears. The agencies have worked together in the past for clients including P&G and Samsung. SMG has also recently acquired a digital campaign management system from i-level. Walmsley and Easterbrook have got to know each other's agencies over the past year and, according to Easterbrook, there's a distinct cultural fit between the two. He says: "For something of this scale you have to be culturally aligned and share the same vision."
Both stand to lose a great deal if things don't go their way. But for i-level, which faces a major drop in income if it loses COI, there's more riding on it. So, does Rust have a plan if they don't win? He laughs: "Apart from running around screaming?"
Lives: Belsize Park
Family: Lives with Nick, his partner of 14 years
Favourite websites: www.stephenfry.com/blog,
Alternative career: Osteopath
Last book read: First Break All The Rules by Marcus Buckingham
Most-treasured possession: Portrait of a Genius after Van Dyke, by Paul