OPINION: Mills on ... Sainsbury's

In the spirit of topicality, let's draw some parallels between Manchester United and Sainsbury's. In 1995, Sir Alex Ferguson kicked out several members of his ageing Manchester United squad and replaced them almost wholesale with his youth team, pre-eminent among whom was a rising star called David Beckham. Since then, both team and individual have hit mutually supported heights, although in Beckham's case rehabilitation followed a personal nadir after his red card against Argentina in 1998.

In 2000, Sainsbury's kicked out the ailing members of its management squad, and rejuvenated its public face with the signing of a rising star called Jamie Oliver. Oliver too discovered a downside, when over-exposure to the media, some of it advertising-linked, saw the public grow tired of his mockney posturing. But, following Jamie's Kitchen, fatherhood and maturity, public esteem has returned and he too is celebrated as a role model. And there the parallels end.

Today, Beckham has been deemed so marginal to United's future they're happy to see him sign for an arch-rival. The same can't be said for Oliver.

Sainsbury's remains a work in progress, hence last week's decision to sign Oliver for another year.

As the summer season begins, Oliver is back on our screens in some new ads through Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which had the foresight to sign the promising youngster a few years back and has since been rewarded with sole tenure on the business.

Boy, does Sainsbury's need a match-winning performance from both now.

Last week, Tesco reported like-for-like sales growth of 5.8 per cent for the quarter; in April, Sainsbury's reported sales growth of just 2.3 per cent for the whole year, and there are suggestions that sales have been falling since. No question, Sainsbury's is losing ground.

Obviously, it'll take more than one campaign to reverse the trend, but there's plenty of promise here. In a nutshell, Jamie is the best man and caterer at his mate's wedding. The wedding is a device that frames a series of messages about summer food, and allows a range of products to be shown, but also gives the ad an upbeat feel. We see Jamie rushing around delivering the food, preparing the recipes and some nice "food-porn" shots: peppers, melons, minute-steak skewers and lots of strawberries.

There are some entertaining touches: the bride's nervous dad anxiously casting his eye over the bill, and Jamie forgetting to make the cake.

There are also a couple of clunky moments. "Congratulations, big fella," Jamie says as the ad opens. "Of course, I'll be best man." Er ... right ... when did they ask him? Later, we can detect the Sainsbury's fruit buyers interfering with the copy as Jamie is heard to observe of the strawberries that they go "from field to store in a day" - which just doesn't sound like the kind of thing he, or anyone for that matter, would say.

Those are minor quibbles, however. Compared with the early executions, Jamie is less brash and less in-your-face. The ads are less about his lifestyle and more about what Sainsbury's has to offer. He also embodies many of the qualities that Sainsbury's needs to appropriate: young, classless, enthusiastic, adventurous and not scary. Dottie, his rival at Tesco, has none of those qualities. Indeed, she's ageing, irritating, conservative and, more so in every execution, just a general pain in the arse.

So how come Tesco is still gaining share from Sainsbury's? I suspect it's because Tesco is winning at all the boring bits of retailing such as logistics and supply chain management. And for that, even Jamie has no magic recipe.

Dead cert for a Pencil? A Grocer magazine award, perhaps.

File under ... U for upbeat.

What would the chairman's wife say? "He forgot the cake ... no way is he

going to do Lucinda's wedding."