They say that history repeats itself, the first time as farce, the
second as tragedy. That is why it is good advice, in life as in love,
never to go back. Of course, you could portray the new chief executive
of Sainsbury’s, Sir Peter Davis, as a prodigal son returned. But reading
the interviews with him over the weekend, it seems that he regards his
return to Sainsbury’s after an absence of 14 years as much like the
resumption of a once-glorious love affair as accepting one of the great
business challenges of the early millennium.
Despite this, it is hard to argue with the appointment of Davis. You can
say Sainsbury’s has three basic problems.
One, it is lacking in leadership; two, repeated profits warnings mean
credibility with the City has stretched to breaking point; and three, it
has a major marketing problem - namely, working out what it stands for
and then delivering on the promise.
Finding a proven leader with City clout and marketing expertise is no
easy brief. Ex-Asda chairman, Archie Norman, apart, Davis probably comes
as close as anyone to meeting the job description. The added bonus is
that his marketing expertise is in the retailing sector.
The fact that it was as Sainsbury’s marketing director that he first
achieved fame may, however, prove a double-edged sword. Of the major
tasks that Davis faces, it must surely be the way he tackles marketing
that determines his success or otherwise. You can bet that’s a factor
that will weigh heavily on Sara Weller, who starts her new role as
Sainsbury’s marketing director this week. So too will the fact that she
was appointed by the old management.
If Weller will be at the sharp end, so too at some stage soon will
Sainsbury’s agencies - Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and M&C Saatchi. History
will relate that it was Davis who appointed AMV some 20 years ago and
that it was the combination of Davis and David Abbott’s distinctive and
stylish advertising that helped Sainsbury’s take market leadership from
Tesco. Similarly, when he arrived at the Prudential, it was AMV that
Davis turned to. What is less well-known is that the incumbent on the
Sainsbury’s account at the time that Davis appointed AMV was Saatchi &
While I would be surprised if Davis was a sentimentalist, when I
interviewed him two years ago the thing that struck me most was the
depth of his regard for AMV and, in particular, David Abbott. Together,
they moved Sainsbury’s away from a price-led approach and created a
strong, quality-led proposition.
But just as you cannot pick up a relationship where you left off 14
years ago, Davis should be wary of history. Under Davis, Sainsbury’s
occupied the middle-to-upmarket ground of retailing so successfully that
it became synonymous with the Volvo-driving, Barbour-wearing,
chardonnay-drinking middle classes. Unlike the competition, however, it
failed to recognise how Britain was changing.
Under Davis it has to distinguish between learning the lessons of
history and just repeating it.