Paul Simons: marketing is about leadership – but you don’t see much of that in the Christmas ads

Last night I went to an event Lancaster University hosts annually at the Royal Society of Arts for alumni (and alumnae to be politically correct).

These events are a legacy of Professor Sir Roland Smith who was the first professor of marketing in the UK and a benefactor of the university. Most of us who attend have been past students of the post graduate Management School.

The speaker last night was Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide (below), about to become chairman and a board member of Publicis.

I haven’t heard Kevin speak before and he was very entertaining, with polished and stimulating content.

The main take out of his lecture for me was about leadership and what it means in today’s world.

Whilst he acknowledged the need for due diligence, data, analysis, research and all the good things we expect, his main thrust was about the need for vision, about having a dream.

Also it was about speed of decisions and avoiding getting bogged down in process.

His thoughts chimed with me and helped with things I feel but sometimes are hard to express – so thanks for that!

The most challenging issue I face when I’m working with a client company is trying to move from missions and goals and objectives to how they would like to be perceived, understood and liked. For me it is about how to connect with people and get them on your side.

This is where the current crop of Christmas advertising is very interesting because this year Sainsbury’s and John Lewis are wholly in the world of emotional connection, a very powerful driver of choice. Neither of these two major UK brands has devoted a second to what they sell; we all know that anyway. They have focused on the emotional triggers of their audiences, on a very large scale.

Most of the competition’s advertising is, bluntly, ‘wallpaper.’ Because they embrace conventional Christmas window dressing. Morrisons for example could be swapped for any brand; there isn’t anything about their TV work that differentiates them from other advertisers. By doing this they run the danger of being confused with all the other Christmas advertisers.

The point of difference is that the majority conform to generic portrayals of Christmas. They are all funding a seasonal backdrop, so look similar, whereas a few avoid the trap and benefit from it..

Now the notion of standing out from the crowd is as old as the hills in advertising parlance but I think the landscape is changing. I might be able to buy a flat screen TV for £10 less at one store but the chances are I won’t do that because I’ll go to the store I like, feel good about and also have good experiences of. This is about the modern expectation of service, a vital part of the customer rating of any provider.

I spotted a charge from Amazon on a bank statement for £79 which I couldn’t reconcile so I contacted them via their on-line chat forum. Within a few minutes they offered me a full refund, although I had signed up in the past for a premium delivery service by mistake. Every experience I’ve had with Amazon has been outstanding; a few times I’ve received two deliveries of the same purchase because I’ve complained the first one hadn’t arrived as promised.

John Lewis gave me a box-fresh laptop because the one I had bought a few months earlier had a few glitches and they also gave me a refund of £30 because the price had dropped.

Both these examples are about a relationship with a supplier that has a massive impact on how I feel, which in turn has a massive impact on where I choose to spend my money. They set the bar high, making it tough for the competition.

I sense in all this that one of the mantras of top management should customer service; something BT should deal with – but that’s another story.

Returning to Kevin Roberts’ lecture, his mantra was old-style marketing is dead and too many large companies are still running their enterprises through rear view mirrors. One of his points was pushing leadership owners to articulate what ‘they stand for.’

When I was at Ogilvy we pitched for the M&S business where our core advice was that they needed to express what they stood for.

it went down like a cup of cold sick at the time and 14 years later they are still trying to wrestle this question to the ground. My esteemed colleague Stephen Foster was complimentary about their food TV spot with Magic & Sparkle but, to be harsh it’s just another 30 seconds of good photography – like numerous other offerings, Morrison’s included. I have no idea why M&S is any different to a rival, based on this communication.

My final question is: who is being conservative, the client or the agency? Surely any ad agency worth their fee could put together a compilation of Christmas advertising set to the Who track ‘Who are you?’ and ask the client concerned to identify what footage goes with which brand. Could they?

I rest my case m’lord.

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