BATTLE OF BRITISH AIRWAYS FEUDING SAATCHI SHOPS SQUARE OFF FOR $135M PITCH WITH JWT, BARTLE

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LONDON-In an unusual prelude to the $135 million British Airways pitch, the airline and its embattled agency-of-the-moment Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising this week will screen a new commercial during a lavish event at Planet Hollywood.

Shot last summer at Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the commercial will be airing around the world at the same time as the pitch's kickoff date, April 4. Saatchi; Maurice Saatchi's New Saatchi Agency; J. Walter Thompson Co.; and Bartle Bogle Hegarty will face off for British Airways and the $40 million account of Qantas, the Australian airline 25% owned by British Airways.

While the other three agencies have large task forces for the pitch and are sending half a dozen or more people, Mr. Saatchi's New Saatchi Agency has heavy hitters with vast British Airways experience. But they are sidelined by non-compete agreements with former employer Saatchi.

New Saatchi is on the verge of announcing an alliance with an international agency network, considered a necessity for winning the business.

Mr. Saatchi and Tim Duffy, the former British Airways account director at Saatchi, are leading the New Saatchi pitch. Saatchi last month warned British Airways that the agency will take legal action if Bill Muirhead or David Kershaw take part. The pair are the former chairmen of Saatchi in North America and the U.K., respectively, who quit in January to join Mr. Saatchi.

Moray MacLennan, Saatchi's former joint managing director and worldwide British Airways account supervisor, filed suit in High Court against Saatchi this month to have his non-compete clause against soliciting Saatchi clients removed. Mr. MacLennan also has joined Mr. Saatchi.

Meanwhile, Robert Fletcher, chairman of Saatchi's Frankfurt office, has flown in to take charge of the airline pitch for the Saatchi team.

"We have about a 1-in-3 chance of keeping the business," a Saatchi executive said.

JWT will be the first agency to pitch on April 4, led by London Chief Executive Dominic Proctor. Bartle, invited to pitch despite having only a London office, will present a pitch led by Deputy Chairman Martin Smith. After the first round of strategy-oriented pitches, British Airways Managing Director Robert Ayling will meet all four in a second round April 25 described as "a fireside chat."

Separately, British Airways is about to make a decision on an unrelated below-the-line pitch for its Executive Club program for business and frequent travelers.

The business will bring in an estimated $3 million to $5 million in fee income; currently the account is split among a number of agencies.

The three contenders are Wunderman Cato Johnson and Kobs & Draft; and Carlson, a U.S. company specializing in loyalty programs. Each hopes to scoop all or most of the account. But Kobs & Draft could suffer by association with its parent company-Cordiant. But even before the British Airways drama begins, Saatchi and New Saatchi will go up against each other for the $60 million account of Dixons, a U.K. consumer electronics retailer currently at Saatchi. JWT and D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles are also believed to be pitching and a decision is expected by the end of March.

Despite a legal challenge from Saatchi, Mr. Saatchi is openly calling his shop New Saatchi Agency in his new business efforts.

It's probably bad news for Saatchi that the U.K.'s High Court keeps putting off setting a date for a hearing on Mr. Saatchi's right to use the Saatchi name, indicating that the court sees no particular urgency in ruling on the issue.

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