OPINION: MILLS ON ... WOOLWORTHS

They may not thank me for saying this down at BBH Towers, but if there was a perceived weakness in the agency's skill-set, it was its inability to crack big retail accounts.

The view set in some years ago with Asda, mitigated only by the inspired use of Fairground Attraction's "It's got to be p-ur-ur-urrr-fect" as the soundtrack. The impression that Bartle Bogle Hegarty and retail weren't made for each other was compounded in the early 90s with a disastrous campaign for WH Smith that appeared to be based on a piece of convoluted thinking around what the chain didn't sell. One poster went something like this: "At WH Smith we don't sell ironing boards." To which the only sane reaction was: "I know that. Shouldn't you tell me what Smiths does sell?" Needless to say, BBH didn't "sell" many ads to WH Smith.

So why did they have so much trouble with retail? I'd say it was to do with the fact that retailers want ads that create a brand and sell product at the same time - except that the product that needs to be sold changes from week to week. Nothing wrong with that except that, when push comes to shove (which it does in the retail environment), the short-term need to shift product displaces the longer-term need to build a brand. Only agencies with a certain type of pragmatism built into their DNA can manage and live with those sorts of tensions. And pragmatism of that kind is not the BBH style.

But it was part of the Bates culture, which is why the agency enjoyed a 17-year relationship with Woolworths, an astonishing achievement for a retail client and against a background of regular management changes on both sides. Until, that is, the two parted company in the spring of this year.

You'd get long odds on BBH lasting 17 years with Woolies, but based on the evidence of its "soul food" work for KFC, a quantum leap in quality compared with the dross that went before, I'd say that BBH was beginning to get the hang of retail, combining specific product messages within the framework of an eat-chicken-any-place-and-have-fun-with-your-mates brand feel.

And so to its first work for Woolies. Three 20-second films promote a three-for-two Ladybird clothes offer for this year's Back to School range. Each features children having fun in the classroom or playground.

In a jumpers-for-goalposts kickabout, the goalie accidentally pushes the ball around the sweatshirt/goalpost (free, if bought as a third item) despite staring at the girl of his dreams. In class, a girl makes a paper dart out of a love message, but it misses its intended target because he is bending down to get his school bag (price £4.99).

There's a natural, upbeat feel to the ads, mirrored by the choice of music, ABC's Look of Love, Mud's Tiger Feet and Squeeze's Is that Love?.

No prizes for guessing that those songs, from the 70s and 80s, are designed to push the nostalgia button for mums and dads - ie. the ones who actually buy the schoolwear.

Maybe the most interesting development is the replacement of the five-year-old and puntastically excruciating endline, "Well worth it", with something lighter and more emotive: "Let's have some fun." My guess is this is part of a long-term ambition to get Woolies out of the lower, some might say bottom, end of the value market for schoolwear where the competition is Asda's George range, Bhs and Tesco, and into a space it can more properly call its own.

This is loosely defined as positioning Woolies as the enabler of fun. I know it doesn't square with the reality of shabby shops, but reinventing a venerable institution such as Woolies is hardly an overnight task, and we are clearly at stage one of a work in progress. The funny thing is, save for the product, the BBH proposition for Woolies looks like its one for KFC. Now that's what I call pragmatic.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Great idea - a three-for-two on school pencils.

File under ... C for cheerful (but not that cheap).

What would the chairman's wife say? "But can BBH do the cheesy Xmas

special?"

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