ISBA has begun compiling a shortlist of agencies to pitch for the £27 million 3 account, following the news that the mobile operator is reviewing its business out of WCRS.
The review spells the end of some of the most talked-about advertising this decade. It also ends a soap opera that included some super-fast pitch processes, accusations of underhand dealings, a legal wrangle over bubbles and adland's most famous jellyfish.
The advertising rethink follows the appointment of John Penberthy-Smith as 3's marketing director last month, amid a mass reorganisation at the company. It is understood that he will be looking for a more retail-led, hard-sell approach to 3's advertising, but denies it's going to be boring: "We are looking for a challenger to orthodox thinking; an agency that is media neutral and has really embraced the digital age."
By early April, 3 hopes to have made an appointment. The pressure is on 3 to improve its performance amid talk, which is denied by the mobile operator, that it is to exit the European 3G market, as losses have put a strain on profit levels of its parent company, Hutchison Whampoa.
The brand launched in the UK in 2003, with a campaign created by TBWA\London. Hutchison Whampoa spent more than £30 million advertising its 3G service, but spectacularly missed its target of one million customers in the first year of operation.
The mobile operator called an ad review described by one insider as "one of the most absurd episodes ever", when agencies WCRS, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, M&C Saatchi, Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners and TBWA\ were given only two weeks to pitch for the account.
In the end, it stayed with TBWA\London, but with a new strategy - a campaign featuring the former Brookside star Anna Friel talking about frogs. It was described in this magazine as "all a bit of tosh, really".
At the same time as TBWA\ was talking about amoeba in an attempt to get people to understand what 3 was about, WCRS had been charged with a project to promote its pay-as-you-go service.
Unfortunately for WCRS, it had to use Friel, leading to work where the actress related breadsticks to pay-as-you-go mobile phones.
Meanwhile, WCRS was also undergoing a management buyout. Industry speculation has long had it that WCRS did a deal with 3 to keep the news of its full appointment a secret until its MBO was completed. The agency's management knew that without 3's huge billings, it might get a bit of a bargain, or so the story goes.
But Julian Hough, the then WCRS business development director, denies this: "Robin (Wight, the chairman of WCRS) and I were told about a month after the buyout that we'd won the appointment."
Almost immediately after the agency was appointed, 3 seconded Hough as the marketing director for an initial period of two months. This turned into two years, leaving Hough in the strange position of working for both client and agency simultaneously.
Under Hough's stewardship, "jellyfish" burst on to TV screens in October 2004. The spot showed two cowboys and a jellyfish, and was, apparently, some sort of metaphor for picking up a girl.
This work was met with a mixture of delight and bafflement. A second ad with a singing cherry made a similar impression, setting the tone for a number of surreal spots, all with a unique Asian look.
At the same time as the branding work appeared, a campaign highlighting the fact that 3 was rather cheap compared with its rivals was causing a ruckus. O2 went to court, saying that the ads were infringing its bubble trademark - a case which O2 lost in March last year.
WCRS leaves the brief with 3's customer numbers rising from 250,000 to 3.75 million during its tenure. These figures are strong, but Debbie Klein, the chief executive of WCRS, admits that despite the rise in customer numbers, the agency failed to persuade people to habitually use its 3G services.
So what does the future hold for 3's advertising? One thing is certain - the brand cannot afford to lose any of the stand-out its weird WCRS ads created for it.
- Leader, page 26.