Paul Simons: M&S shouldn’t be reviewing agency RKCR/Y&R – it should be reviewing itself

The news that Marks & Spencer are reviewing their advertising arrangements is predictable and in many ways a sad indictment on senior M&S management. They have tried everything else over the last five years or so without being able to reverse the decline in clothing sales and market share so finally it is the turn of the poor ad agency. It always feels like “Let’s do something; I know, we will call a review and get lots of free intel that might give us the answer, and it is really free”.

RKCR/Y&R have delivered some outstanding advertising for the brand over many years yet the clothing business has continued to tank, albeit slowly. The agency have done their best but they have been working to a ‘wannabe’ brief rather than a realistic brief. The senior team at M&S have wanted to present a brand in a way that isn’t what the public experience when they walk in to a store.

Marks & Spencer , Oxford Street.
Marks & Spencer , Oxford Street.

Some years ago, working on research for a grocery brand, it constantly told us customer attitudes were formed by their experience of their local store. Therefore never try to pull the wool over the public’s eyes, once found out the word of mouth spreads pretty quickly.

Rather than waste a huge amount of management time and the significant investment necessary for several agencies to pitch, M&S should provide RKCR/Y&R with a relevant brief and get on with it. If then, and only then, they believe the agency isn’t on the same page then call a review.

However this will not happen and every agency involved – it’s supposed to be a closed WPP pitch – would have doubts/concerns if Omnicom’s adam&eve/DDB were on the short list; I can hear the chat that says “give me a John Lewis magic solution.” But this is the problem for M&S, as a product it hasn’t the gravitas or appeal anymore now enjoyed by some other brands.

Some 16 years ago at Ogilvy I pitched for M&S and back then we advised them to avoid glamorising the brand because there were too many cracks in the views held by the core customer base. The hard job, maybe a bit dull but necessary, was about reinforcing the range of benefits that answered ‘why M&S.’ That job has never been done adequately over succeeding years as the management have chased a glamorous brand personality.

I often wonder what shareholders in any publicly listed business think about the management’s approach to their advertising relationships. Elementary dear Watson but the advertising for a business like M&S is the most visible public face of the enterprise. How can a shareholder, after watching the Christmas extravaganza two years ago of ‘Magic & Sparkle’ – get it – walk in to their local store so far removed from the TV image and not be concerned?

By comparison, at the same time, the John Lewis campaign wiped the floor with competitors due to its creative work, seamless integration from TV screen to store to website, creating a warm and desirable brand personality that appealed to the prosperous middle class. Their sales went up, M&S went down.

Surely M&S management must recognise their challenges are internal – not with their external suppliers?

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