Paul Simons: UK’s juggernaut retail brands need a big Christmas – but are our agencies up to it?

As we approach the season of the annual advertising showcase, Christmas, anticipation of who is going to do what is already being talked about so we thought MAA should get in there early.

In the tittle tattle of London’s West End and East End watering holes there seems to be a general consensus that current UK advertising output is, overall, so-so, nothing really lighting any fires anywhere. A bit like our politics, the output feels like it has all settled in to a similar zone of ‘Middle England’ (before our friends in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales complain it is a figure of speech).

But Christmas in recent years has seen the big productions, a once a year, 60-second extravaganzas on our TV screens, attempting to lure the UK public to various stores and brands. Just like politics though the landscape is finally changing and this Christmas many juries will be watching with intense interest, including shareholders and City analysts.

The reason for so much interest is the challenges facing many juggernaut brands.

Take Tesco for example, with all of their problems at the moment. They have a major uphill task on their hands with internal financial investigations going on, a shrinking market share, serious competition from the German grocers Lidl and Aldi, supplier revolt, amongst other small matters. Plus their advertising isn’t exactly inspiring. The current TV spot featuring the two blokes in the ‘under the carpet’ script For Hudl is banal; not funny, and very unclear about what the deal is.

Whilst advertising will never be the magic wand for any brand in trouble, it is a powerful tool at the disposal of a brand this big with a media budget in excess of £100m annually.

Tesco needs a radically different approach if they are going to turn around their current decline, one that establishes values that a big percentage of the population find compelling and motivating.

Lidl and Aldi have the luxury of being ‘challenger’ brands, new news, where nibbling away at the brand shares of the big players is a relatively easy task. Plus they can afford to zig when the world zags with their advertising.

In the supermarket sector Morrisons, Sainsbury and Asda all have similar problems to Tesco but the rush to the ‘cheaper’ proposition can only end in tears.

Marks & Spencer is still struggling to persuade us that their clothing ranges are worth buying. Recent market intelligence hints that their share of the clothing sector continues to tank, albeit at a slower rate, and the management appear unable to stop the rot. Whenever I’m on public transport in the Marble Arch area in London there are women with multiple shopping bags from Primark whereas the odd M&S bag is sadly smaller.

Over the last three years I have concluded the M&S advertising is a misfit with their brand although a master class in production (above). Not a masterclass for the M&S brand though, so their Christmas special has a massive job to do this year. If the sales don’t reflect the hype then I would not be surprised to see heads roll this time around.

The trail blazer over recent years has been John Lewis, almost unstoppable in terms of broken records every Christmas. However their marketing director has gone public recently, suggesting maybe they have gotten too big for their boots and need to pull back a bit. I suspect there is a poker play going on here. It is very good and intelligent thinking to say “we can’t follow that again” but I can’t see adam&eveDDB throwing in the towel and doing something ordinary. My bet is on them doing something completely different and wrong-footing every other advertiser this Christmas.

Flipping to the agency side of this there are some interesting observations and questions. Firstly Wieden+Kennnedy must be wondering how their relationship with Tesco, under new boss Dave Lewis, is going to pan out. RKCR/Y&R have been excellent partners to M&S but how long will it be before the client takes the decision to review their advertising relationship, often a course of action for brands in trouble. Then you have the changing advertising agency scene.

Anomaly and Droga5 have opened offices in London but as if yet neither has made any mark in the UK. Their work in the US is progressive and ahead of anything happening in London so, just like Aldi and Lidl, perhaps they will become the ‘challenger’ brands in the advertising sector. Both are antidotes to the global networks, both handle major brands in the US, both are tuned in to multi-channel implementation, both do outstanding creative work.

Given a) the issues facing many brands this year and b) the generally lacklustre output of most UK agencies, and c) the need for action to remedy things, maybe we will see an upheaval in the advertising world similar to the advertiser world.

One generally follows the other.

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About Stephen Foster

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.
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