Was RB's adspend really not working?
A view from Maisie McCabe

Was RB's adspend really not working?

Wieden & Kennedy's loss of Finish and Nurofen highlights advertisers' ongoing struggle to juggle brand-building and short-term sales.

When there was a push from chief executives and chief financial officers to decrease non-working marketing spend last year, the clever Richard Huntington of Saatchi & Saatchi wrote an eloquent piece for Campaign trashing the strategy. 

Yes, working marketing spend (ie the media) is the easiest part of the budget from which to determine a result. But most of the magic – and the biggest potential return – comes from the clever things brilliant people come up with. Huntington believes that every brand should be fuelled by "a killer idea paid for by ‘non-working marketing spend’". Slashing it isn’t going to find your "Vorsprung durch Technik".

Huntington’s column came to mind with RB’s decision to move its Finish and Nurofen brands out of Wieden & Kennedy and into Havas and McCann respectively. Most of the people who commented on the decision to me – both privately and publicly – lamented the end of what looks to be, from the outside at least, a fruitful relationship. 

The Finish ads challenged the dishwasher category, showing that it is possible to do stylish and thoughtful work for what might be considered a boring business. The ads brought to life the insight that all of life’s difficult moments end with dishes. Finish spots were included in Campaign’s top ten TV and cinema ads of 2016 and 2015 – an unheard-of feat for the brand. The first effort, "Dishes", was recognised at Cannes, D&AD, the Campaign Big Awards and the British Arrows. 

When Wieden & Kennedy picked up Nurofen in July 2015 after an eight-month pitch against McCann and incumbent Havas, it seemed that the duo were going to change stuffy categories for good. Yet roll on 22 months and no ads have materialised. If anyone had been paying attention, they might have guessed that something was up. 

As I understand it, RB hired Wieden & Kennedy to usher in change. The company wanted to become a beacon of creativity and was looking to do things differently. But not everyone at RB was on board. And some executives still wanted the ads to explain why Finish tablets were better than Fairy’s. In an interesting twist, it fell to Wieden & Kennedy to argue for the data, the importance of creating an emotional connection and long-term brand-building, while the proponents of traditional ads were talking about their gut.

Differences of opinion can be talked through. But if you’re not moving an FMCG brand’s market share, those who were against the change in the first place have quite a strong argument. And so Finish has returned to Havas. And Nurofen has moved to McCann, which fought bloody hard for it in the pitch Wieden & Kennedy won. I’m told that increasing RB business has been a major strategic objective for McCann in recent years. So well done to them.

Will McCann and Havas create the work Wieden & Kennedy might have continued to do? Probably not. Could they sell more painkillers and dishwasher tablets? They might do. I’ll definitely be watching.

Maisie McCabe is acting UK editor of Campaign. 
maisie.mccabe@haymarket.com 
@maisiemccabe