Teams from three media agencies are right now playing a decisive role in shaping the political destiny of Britain for the years ahead.
They are the men and women who will spend millions of pounds of party political funds to determine the outcome of the UK General Election to be held on 5 May.
Between now and then, agencies' planners and buyers will decide on the placement of press ads and outdoor posters designed to influence the voting habits of the country's key 838,000 floating voters in 165 marginal seats.
The agencies holding the nation's future in their hands are OMDUK, in charge of the Labour Party account; Media Planning Group, awarded the Conservative brief; and Vizeum UK, which has just been appointed to run the ad campaign for the Liberal Democrats.
An industry insider puts the position in almost apocalyptic terms when he says: "The role of advertising in politics is pivotal.
Anyone who doubts that isn't living in the real world. The responsibility on us is awesome."
Sworn to secrecy
All three agencies say they are sworn to secrecy by their clients.
They won't disclose the size of election budgets or the media strategies they plan to unleash on the public during the next three weeks.
But it is known that the Liberal Democrats have already spent £100,000 on full-page ads in three national newspapers – dwarfing its entire 2001 general election ad spend.
It is estimated that Labour will this time be substantially exceeding the £3.8mit splashed out on advertising during the contest four years ago. And the Conservatives' cap on total campaign spend for the 12 months prior to the General Election was set at just over £18m.
There is no disguising the enthusiasm that those agencies working on the trio of political accounts have generated.
Some seem to have risen to the challenge with an almost religious zeal.
Talking to Media Planning Group's UK chief executive Marc Mendoza and group manager Robert Lynam, who have been working on the Tory account since the end of 2003, you get the impression that both men are on a mission.
Mendoza freely confesses: "I love it. I've worked on so many accounts and this is the most intense piece of business I've ever worked on."
Lynam agrees. Both say their mobiles are never off to make sure they never run the risk of losing contact with the political machine at a vital moment.
"My mobile's on even in the gym," explains Mendoza.
Early on Saturday morning Lynam was busy on the phone to an employee of a poster company after getting reports that the wrong political poster had been put up in a constituency.
"We had to get that rectified immediately. We have to do the same where posters are defaced," he says.
Mendoza admits to being inspired by the confidence exuded by the Conservative Party's campaign director, Aussie-born Lynton Crosby, whom he meets daily.
He refuses to entertain any other election outcome than an outright Tory victory on 5 May.
Merely slashing Labour's massive parliamentary majority isn't enough, it seems.
Mendoza says: "If the Conservatives don't win, there won't be any champagne celebrations."
Both men, who have a team of six to help them at their offices in Great Newport Street, Leicester Square, are full of praise for the talents of rival agencies in the election race –OMDUK and Vizeum UK. But they believe that the former is representing a fading brand and the latter a lost cause.
While resolutely refusing to identify Tory tactics, Mendoza and Lynam concede that widespread mistrust of Tony Blair must be a factor in many electors' voting intentions.
Mendoza makes no effort to conceal his personal feelings about the Labour leader.
"Even if he came up to me and told me the correct day of the week, I'd still check my calendar," he says.
Nearby at Vizeum UK's headquarters near Leicester Square, there is the same palpable level of excitement.
It is the first time in the Liberal Democrats' history that the party has had a media agency working on its election campaign.
It's also the first time that the party has been able to afford one, according to sources.
Stuart Newman, board planning director, and Matthew Hook, strategist, are heading a team of six on the Lib-Dem account.
Hook says: "We only took on the account two weeks ago, so we've had a lot to do.
"It's been quite hectic, but I'm a Lib-Dem supporter, so it's more than just a piece of business for me."
Newman says: "We're on a high at the moment. The Liberal Democrats are a challenger brand – and it's great to work on a challenger brand. I'm completely wrapped up in it."
The agency's main party contact is Lord Rennard, the Lib- Dems' chief executive, who says the appointment of Vizeum UK is aimed at raising the party's profile and upping the stakes in a contest where Charlie's Army is considered by political pundits to be mounting the biggest ever challenge by a third party to Britain's traditional two-party system.
Both Newman and Hook will be on standby virtually 24/7, but they say the campaign will avoid the temptation to react to the Labour or Tory agenda, but instead will build upon the Lib- Dems' 10-point programme, which Vizeum UK placed in outdoor and hundreds of newspapers.
Focus on hopes
Newman says: "Without giving anything away, I think you will find that the Liberal Democrat campaign will focus on people's hopes rather than play on people's fears."
If Media Planning Group and Vizeum UK both have the daunting but exhilarating task of representing brands mounting a challenge, OMD UK have the trickier job of representing the tenant in possession – not just Blair's occupancy of 10 Downing Street but that of the Labour's eight years in Government.
Political observers say the longer any party is in power, the more vulnerable a focus it becomes for the public's accumulating grievances.
Even so, at OMD UK's offices in Bishop's Bridge Road, Paddington, the agency which ran the media planning and buying for the party during its 1997 and 2001 General Election triumphs, there is quiet confidence that a hat-trick can be achieved next month and that Blair can hold onto his job as Prime Minister.
Matthew White, business director for planning at OMD, manages to avoid sounding too bullish, even though the opinion polls still put Labour comfortably in the lead despite last week's narrowing of the gap between the party and the Tory runners-up.
Recalling his agency's past winning track record for Labour, he says: "We're all here hoping that this time it will be as successful as it has been previously."
White continues: "In terms of going forward, I can't comment.
But in terms of what we've done already, there has been a mixture of activity: mostly, large-format outdoor as has been used in previous campaigns. Generically, I think it would be difficult for outdoor to take a higher share this time because, historically, it's taken nearly 100%of everyone's budget. It is one of the only really cost-effective broadcast formats."
He says: "I'm not saying it's reached saturation point. I just think there is evidence at the moment that certain people might be looking at different ways to break the patterns of the past."
White says he is thrilled that the agency is working on Labour's account again. And he is philosophical about the possibility of unforeseen circumstances changing the pace and thrust of the campaign.
He says: "Whenever a campaign gets underway, the unexpected always happens.
That's part of the excitement of any election campaign."
Another agency executive says she doesn't envy OMD UK's brief. She says: "Labour are bound to lose seats, even if they win the election, because their Parliamentary representation is so high and the Tories are bound to pick up seats because they've been down at their bedrock support for so long.
"So in a sense MPG has everything to gain and OMD has potentially a lot to lose. And with Vizeum UK, well, almost anything could conceivably happen to the Lib-Dems, but all the omens look good for them in a modest sort of way."
So it looks as if it isn't just the politicians whose reputations are on the line. There is a lot at stake for the account agencies too.
Political advertising–a recent history
Political ads have become a lot more sophisticated in the 40 years since the Conservative Government, led by feudal Scottish laird Sir Alec Douglas Home, sought re-election in 1964 with posters showing a respectable family of four picnicking on a lawn, while one child played on a garden swing and another was given a piggy-back ride by her dad.
Accompanied by the slogan "It's your standard of living. Keep it. Vote Conservative," it was mocked on television by Labour leader Harold Wilson, who congratulated the Tories on having invented the garden swing and piggy-back rides.
He promised that Labour wouldn't abolish either. Nor would it ban sitting on the grass. But Wilson added: "Be careful to ensure that the grass you sit on doesn't belong to someone else's private game reserve."
The nation fell about laughing, the Tories went down to defeat and were out of power for the rest of the decade.
But the Conservatives had their revenge in 1979. The Tory poster "Labour isn't working", which highlighted unemployment concerns by showing a seemingly endless dole queue, was widely credited with ushering in 18 years of Conservative rule.
On the other hand, the 1997 Tory General Election ad showing Tony Blair with demon-eyes was widely seen as a disaster. So was the election outcome for the Tories. Labour won a landslide victory and has been in power ever since.
Election ads exempt from code
Political ads during the General Election will be exempt from the CAP code of conduct, Advertising Standards Authority director general Christopher Graham has said in a letter to party leaders.
Graham says that any complaints received about election ads between now and polling day will not be pursued by the ASA.
The exemption exists because political parties are occasional advertisers and have never signed up to the CAP code.
Parties contesting UK Parliamentary constituencies are limited to spending £30,000 per seat. A party that contests all 646 UK seats will be limited to a total of £19.38m. Parliamentary candidates are allowed to spend up to £7,150 per seat – plus 7p per elector if the seat is a county constituency or 5p per elector if the seat is a borough constituency.