Steve Sharp’s exit from M&S fires the starting gun on UK adland’s next big pitch

Before Steve Sharp (left) joined Marks & Spencer as marketing director in 2004 – as part of Stuart Rose’s management team hired to fend off a takeover bid from Philip Green – M&S barely used to advertise.

It had hired, I seem to recall, the Davidson Pearce agency (subsequently absorbed into BMP) as its agency but it was the devil of a job to get its Civil Service-type management (then ensconced in Whitehall-like quarters in London’s Baker Street) to commit to anything as vulgar as advertising with anything like enthusiasm.

The prevailing feeling was (and maybe still is in some parts of the company) that a national icon like M&S didn’t, or shouldn’t, need advertising. But M&S has been behaving as if it had a God-given right to exist for decades.

Sharp changed all that, on the surface at least. Under showman Rose and Sharp the company began to spend north of £50m on fashion ads featuring models Twiggy (an inspired choice as she really is a national icon) and Erin O’Connor among others and also produced its celebrated ‘food porn’ ads for the rather better performing part of the business.

RKCR/Y&R was placed in charge and, mostly, did a very good job. You can argue that the Twiggy campaign went on a bit too long, but that’s the trouble with celebs; Sainsbury’s has the same issue now over the departed Jamie Oliver. The latest X-Factor tie-ups are probably a little too, well, vulgar for M&S.

But the company’s fashion efforts have been struggling since the latter years of the Rose regime and have not improved under current CEO Marc Bolland; former CEO of Morrisons, not known for its fashion expertise. In truth it lost its way when former Next founder George Davies, who introduced the Per Una line to M&S, fell out with the management (as George does). Bolland is now pinning his hopes (and job) on new women’s lines overseen by part-time fashion supremo and former Jaeger boss Belinda Earl.

So it’s an appropriate time for Sharp to leave (or retire) and, as sure as eggs are eggs, there will be an agency review after the new marketing director (or CMO) moves in. Because there always is.

Interestingly James Murphy, who helmed the account at RKCR/Y&R for years, is now running Adam&Eve/DDB after his breakaway agency was bought by the Omnicom shop a couple of years ago for an extraordinary £60m.

And A&E is best-known for its emotional John Lewis advertising; exactly the kind of stuff many think M&S should have been doing. A&E also handles Halifax, which is also promoted as a retail brand; albeit rather downmarket of John Lewis.

So M&S is off to A&E is it? Life isn’t quite that simple and John Lewis is in the clothes business too and, indeed, upmarket food via supermarket offshoot Waitrose (handled by BBH). Any A&E/M&S tie-up would be messy at best.

BBH is also an M&S-type place; maybe John Lewis could just go there to join Waitrose and then…

But RKCR/Y&R deserves a fair crack of the whip and exiting marketing director Sharp will no doubt do his best for them. A lot depends on what happens to Bolland. If the new women’s clothing collection fails to arrest the current decline Bolland will be on his bike. And whoever takes the top job will want their choice of agency in, in double quick time.

Such a person (it might be exiting WH Smith boss Kate Swann (but, whatever else she may be, she’s not much of retailer) might decide to appoint one agency for general merchandise (as M&S quaintly calls it) and one for food. Which would open the door to Sainsbury’s agency AMV/BBDO.

Decisions, decisions…

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About Stephen Foster

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Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.