May the HSBC fiasco be a cautionary tale for us all

By Jeremy Lee,, Thursday, 22 August 2013 08:00AM

HSBC's highly embarrassing volte-face, which has seen the bank shift its prized UK retail advertising account out of Grey London and back into JWT London after just five months, is a timely reminder to clients who think they can get the moon on a stick.

May the HSBC fiasco be a cautionary tale for us all

It’s difficult not to feel at least a slither of sympathy for Grey – which, it seems, was unable to service the account due to a distinct lack of retail credentials – for losing the business after such a short time. It’s a knock to an agency that has been on a bit of a creative and new-business roll, but the bareness of its threads in this particular area would inevitably come to light on such a monster account. Some red faces over at Hatton Garden are understandable for what looks like over-promising.

For JWT, to which the account returns, celebrations are probably relatively muted given the pain, expense and disappointment that the agency went through earlier in the year when the bulk of the global HSBC business – an account that, in many ways, defined the shop – was ripped out of it.

The review was never about the creative idea at all (by the bank’s own admission) – rather, it appeared a vanity exercise

But JWT can be forgiven for having a wry look on its face when it next meets Philip Mehl, the HSBC pan-European head of marketing and to whom some responsibility for this whole sorry debacle should ultimately fall.

If there’s any villain in the piece, it’s HSBC itself – which, in a bizarrely counter-intuitive move, decided to increase the number of agencies on its roster rather than reduce or simply maintain it. Even odder still was the fact that the review was never about the creative idea at all (by the bank’s own admission) – rather, it appeared a vanity exercise that agencies were understandably all too willing to play along with.

So, after a time-consuming and expensive six-month merry dance for agencies, JWT, which has produced consistently solid work over nearly a decade, was left with the scraps; Grey bizarrely became HSBC’s new best friend, despite lacking in retail experience; and Saatchi & Saatchi was thrown a bone with the bank’s creatively interesting but relatively small sponsorship business.

In other words, an unnecessarily confusing mess that, to some extent, has now been reversed but which will have left many agency staff both at JWT and Grey feeling bruised and disappointed. This was not entirely through their own doing, but through a muddled process that took no account of the ability of the agencies involved to actually service the business – instead, it focused on the desire to run a pitch for what looked like the sake of it.

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