Sainsbury's Justin King on why an ad agency is only ever as good as its last campaign

Justin King, the outgoing chief executive of Sainsbury's, believes that when times are tough for a brand, it can be too easy for the ad agency to be made scapegoat. The braver decision, he says, is to stick together - as it did with AMV.

Sainsbury's CEO Justin King on keeping AMV on its toes
Sainsbury's CEO Justin King on keeping AMV on its toes

Speaking to Marketing - ahead of the start of Advertising Week Europe in London next week where King will talk about the value of partnerships - he said that Sainsbury’s 30-year relationship with Abbott Mead Vickers had been through good and bad times, but the agency understood the "DNA of the organisation".

"Just as many of the leadership team in Sainsbury’s had to take their responsibility for the decline of the organisation, AMV did too. I don’t think they would point to the period through the late 90s and early 2000s as a period that they’re particularly proud of in terms of their contribution to the success, or lack thereof, of the business during that time.

It’s the old maxim about computers - rubbish in, rubbish out. The same is largely true of agencies. They believe the client briefed them badly, the client believes the agency didn’t understand

"With a lot of the pitches that take place when a business is in change or in crisis, there is almost a predisposition to change because it’s the easy way for a new marketing director to demonstrate that they’ve moved things on. However, it’s always the braver decision, and often the right decision, to stay with the incumbent."

In 2005, a year after King took the helm as chief executive, the creative account was put up for pitch, as part of a wholesale review of the entire company. Although King said there was a "genuine likelihood that AMV could lose the business", there wasn’t a predisposition to remove them.

King added that "I never understood" the need to re-roster all agencies just because a brand was in a turnaround situation.

"It’s the old maxim about computers - rubbish in, rubbish out. The same is largely true of agencies. Of course what tends to happen in these conversations is that the agency always believes it’s because the client briefed them badly and the client believes it’s because the agency didn’t understand what they were supposed to be doing. And the truth always lies somewhere between the two.

"I think the best work is done by people who understand the DNA of an organisation, who are part of it, aligned with it, share its values and have a clarity of what you’re trying to achieve."

King said that the key with any relationship is "to keep the partner on their toes".

He added: "If you were to ask AMV, they would say that while they are very confident [in the strength of the relationship] because of the longevity, they are constantly made to feel that they are only as good as their latest piece of work.

"I don’t think agency relationships should ever be judged by one piece of creative insight versus another. It’s about whether, in the long term, they help you build a brand."

Failure of previous leadership

One question King said he most often gets asked is what he is most proud of at Sainsbury’s. For him, it is the fact that the turnaround journey, which Sainsbury’s has been on for the past 10 years, has largely been made with same people who were part of the business "during its darker years" in the 1990s.

If you don’t understand your own brand - why you think it’s a brand that can and should connect with consumers - then you’ve not got a chance of the agency doing it

"I think it’s a demonstration that Sainsbury’s difficulties were largely a failure of leadership and that the business is populated on the whole by great people who were not being well led.

"We launched an incentive in 2004 called 'Making Sainsbury’s Great Again' for the top 1000 or so managers in the company. When that paid out four years later, when we had achieved all our turnaround targets, about 950 managers were still in the company. That says a lot about leadership."

This, King says, was also the case with AMV.

"Let’s be clear what the agency is responsible for and what you’re responsible for. If you don’t understand your own brand, why you think it’s a brand that can and should connect with consumers, then you’ve not got a chance of the agency doing it."

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