OPINION: MILLS ON ... M&S’S NEW MARKETING DIRECTOR

My phone rings last Thursday afternoon. It’s a financial journalist on one of the national broadsheets. ’M&S has just appointed some bloke from Woolies called Alan McWalter as marketing director,’ they tell me, ’and the share price (which had been falling all week anyway) is still falling. So who is this McWalter person then?’

My phone rings last Thursday afternoon. It’s a financial journalist

on one of the national broadsheets. ’M&S has just appointed some bloke

from Woolies called Alan McWalter as marketing director,’ they tell me,

’and the share price (which had been falling all week anyway) is still

falling. So who is this McWalter person then?’



While one wouldn’t necessarily expect the City to know who McWalter is,

the kneejerk reaction - and the falling share price - says more to me

about the City than it does about McWalter. City analysts clearly

haven’t been to Woolworths recently.



Apparently, and I kid you not, the City in its infinite wisdom had been

expecting Marks & Spencer to hire someone from Gap or some other whizzy

retailer. This, when you think about it, is not only naive but also a

bit frightening - because it shows how wide a gulf of understanding

there is in the City when it comes to marketing. A comment in The Times

last Friday underlines the point: ’The realisation that (McWalter) is

not even some young superstar but the middle-aged marketing director of

Woolworths fails to excite. His reign at Woolworths is hardly redolent

of the cutting edge of marketing,’ it thundered as only a newspaper

unburdened by knowledge can.



Even if you agree with The Times’s argument (which I don’t), that is to

miss the point. M&S may need cutting-edge marketing (which I suspect The

Times defines as fcuk or a load of cord-clad Gap models singing Mellow

Yellow) at some point in the future, but what it needs first is some

marketing fundamentals. Someone with experience of large-scale,

multi-faceted retailing is more likely to do that than someone from a

niche operator like Gap.



Moreover, a man who has presided over Woolies marketing in its long

journey from a fuzzy and slightly downmarket outfit to a tightly focused

retailer is much more likely to have something to offer M&S. Despite the

differences between the two, there are a number of parallels between the

two organisations.



They are both large, predominantly high-street operations with multiple

product ranges. And they are both essentially middle-England brands.



Five years ago Woolies was a dowdy place - as M&S is today. Since then

Woolies has reinvented itself, created a bit of theatre in its stores,

done some excellent advertising, segmented its offering and identified

its target market - which is pretty much what M&S needs to do. Cutting

edge? Hardly. More like a matter of doing the basics well.



The real question, however, is whether McWalter can make his mark on an

introverted culture like M&S’s. The fact that he has been passed over at

least twice for the managing director’s slot at Woolies suggests that

not everybody has faith in him.



A year ago, one would have said he - or anyone for that matter - had

little chance of making an impact at Baker Street. But now M&S knows it

must transform itself from a buying-led organisation into a

marketing-led one. And it knows that outsiders are most likely to bring

about that change.



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