MEDIA: Spotlight On: Abbey National - Abbey National won't start a trend with its instant pitches

Others are unlikely to copy Abbey's recent handling of agencies.

Luqman Arnold is a merchant banker. Honestly, a genuine merchant banker - he used to work at UBS. While at UBS, he did business with, and became a friend of, Sir Martin Sorrell.

This is one of those unusual pitch stories - in other words, conspiracy theory corner. Arnold has been the chief executive of Abbey National for around six months and was brought in to work a more or less instant transformation on its fortunes. The previous regime made a number of misguided diversifications and took its eye off the bank's core retail banking business. Consequently, its market share has dipped alarmingly.

So he's a man in a hurry, and a man not afraid of making a break with the past. Back in April he sacked the company's creative agency of nine years - Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper - and handed the account to TBWA/London in a review completed in less than a week.

Last week, he was at it again on the media account (worth £27 million), and although this time the pitch process lasted a fortnight, the outcome was equally brutal. Out went Carat, which had held the business for 16 years, and the account was handed to MindShare and Naked Communications. The snap pitch, which had included Manning Gottlieb OMD and Initiative Media as well as Carat and MindShare, was conducted by Arnold.

Cue a huge surge in paranoia. The TBWA executive planning director on the Abbey account, whose views are valued by Arnold, is Neil Dawson. Dawson's other big account is 3G where the media agencies are MindShare and (previously) Naked.

Arnold asked three agencies to join the incumbent on the pitch. Of those three agencies, two were conflicted and the one that wasn't won the business.

Add it all up and what do you get? You might think it's actually rather like the company's recent TV ad. Just think of it. Arnold playing the Martin Kemp character and someone at MindShare, the chief executive, Kelly Clark, say, playing the blonde waiting for her blind date in the restaurant.

And, of course, the presence of Sorrell (the boss of MindShare's holding company, WPP, should you need reminding) in the story is almost de rigueur from a conspiracy theory point of view. But some of the participants - even some who pitched and lost - say it wasn't really like that.

And it's no surprise to find Clark calling it a refreshing experience.

There's something to be said for brief, intense, spontaneous pitches, he says, and points out that there was as much total agency-client contact time as you'd normally get stretched across the duration of your average pitch process.

"Agencies have to be capable of running the marathons as well as the sprints," he concludes. Another source close to the pitch process goes even further: "Agency-client relationships that genuinely work well are about chemistry and shared values and those aren't the sorts of things you assess by ticking boxes for six months. Doing it this way is brilliant and it's confident."

But is it the future? Are we likely to see more business awarded on the basis of gut feel, chemistry and shared values? Are media pitches going to move back towards being more like creative pitches, and less like number-crunching festivals?

That said, some in the marketplace are genuinely perturbed by what they've seen and heard of this episode. They are concerned that the presentation process was less than genuine and that Sorrell may have been told that if his guys were good enough they would come through. Abbey needed some form of comparison so a pitch was called.

The interesting thing, according to insiders, is that Arnold was apparently convinced early on that to appoint another Omnicom agency (he already has TBWA and Wolff Olins on board) would not be a good idea. That, some say, had Sorrell's fingerprints all over it.

Others are more generous and agree with Clark that the Abbey approach is hugely refreshing. It was broadly a credentials pitch so agencies were glad that it didn't take three months and, some argue that the process frequently gets in the way of getting the right agency. The procurement work dragging on for days, weeks and months can be very distracting and agencies can forget that they are there to inspire.

Some seem to think that the selection process is changing and is symptomatic of a trend toward agencies and advertisers working more closely together.

Increasingly, the work that matters out there will be the product of an integrated dialogue between the agency and the client - and you can't have a dialogue with a process factory that's been given the job because it has ticked more boxes than the others.

However, the consensus appears to be that it's actually very much a one-off. "We won't see this again for a very long time," one industry source says. Agencies say the real truth is that there are multiple stakeholders in a pitch process, for instance, the various marketing and procurement people, all of whom must be confident that they can show the board that they have gone through due diligence. Arnold is actually still responsible to the shareholders, some of who might conceivably want to ask him why he committed so much money on the basis of a speedy pitch process. This situation, where one man has been given this sort of carte blanche, is unlikely to be repeated in the near future.