M&S has gone from high-profile advertising sceptic to high-profile advertising fanatic in six years. Who remembers how it used to proclaim its disdain for advertising just a few years back? That was until its sales collapsed and it needed a strategy to reclaim its place in the hearts of the British buying public.
Today it is once again the darling of the high street, and advertising has been right at the heart of its recovery. Such turnarounds are rare in business, and when the retailer unveils its next undoubtedly strong set of results, its rivals and peers will look on with renewed envy and admiration. And, best of all, they will recall its extremely memorable advertising campaign.
But it hasn't been a smooth ride. When RKCR/Y&R produced its first work for M&S in 2000, it all went horribly wrong. Remember the fat naked woman running up a hill? The retailer became a laughing stock, but it stuck with the agency and its advertising. More recently it stayed true after Jim Kelly and MT Rainey quit, a move that so easily could have provoked a pitch. Instead M&S's marketing supremo, Steven Sharp, and the agency have the kind of easy relationship that leads to the very best advertising. The client has kept the faith and as a result RKCR/Y&R is churning out the kind of advertising that enables the retailer to charge a premium for its food, that keeps knicker drawers across the nation full of M&S labels and that has even managed to imbue the clothing range with some style credentials.
The Effectiveness Grand Prix is only one sign of the work's success. The unofficial one is the amount of copycat advertising going on. You can just hear the bosses at Matalan ordering its marketers to "do an M&S". Ditto for Morrison's, which also seems to have developed a penchant for close-up food pornography.
There's a rumbling in adland about the new Sony ad from Fallon, and it's not very positive. Mostly it's about being disappointed. This is mainly because the ad's predecessor, "balls", was such a hard act to follow. I can't think of a single client/agency relationship that has yielded two belters of the quality of "balls" on the trot. I'm not sure it's possible. The main criticism of "paint" seems to be that it lacks the optimism of "balls". Filmed in a run-down council estate, the ad has a grey feel to it, despite all the exploding colour.
The thing about the UK advertising business is that its practitioners love to knock their successful peers. So all criticism of "paint" should be taken with more than a pinch of salt. In fact, I'd also challenge anyone to come up with a better TV ad in 2006. "Paint" may not be "balls", but it's still the ad of the year. It's replete with client conviction and creative courage. I'm not sure which other spot this year could claim that.
Indeed, 2006 has been very conservative in creative terms. Where was Wieden & Kennedy's "grrr" successor, where was Lowe's new Stella or Sure?
The best advertising is all about braving untested waters, but in 2006 agencies seem to have lost their daring and conviction. I surmise that this is the result of insecurity; that ad agencies aren't sure about their respective futures now that the digital boys are moving in on their territory. Agencies are aware that the way they work needs to change, but are feeling nervous until the new agency model emerges.
All should take solace from Monday night's awards. There, more than anywhere, the power of the 30-second TV ad was demonstrated. Yes, the advertising landscape is evolving, but TV will be its most crucial element for some years to come.
Claire Beale is away.