Marks & Spencer as Advertiser of the Year? A few years ago the idea would have seemed fanciful if not downright preposterous. The retailer was never serious about it. So ubiquitous were the stores, that they simply advertised themselves, it was reasoned. As for the punters, well, they just kept the tills jingling.
With hindsight, this sounds like a recipe for disaster -- and it was. As we all now know, success bred, not innovation, but arrogance and complacency. Better attuned rivals such as Gap and French Connection slowly but surely began stealing M&S's clothes (or at least they would have done had they not become so dowdy and old-fashioned).
Today, having undergone its catharsis, M&S is a reformed character -- older, wiser and most certainly richer. This autumn it reported a half-year profits rise of 32 per cent to £405 million -- its best performance in almost a decade. And this at a time when the high street still struggles to recapture consumer confidence.
For a company that barely two years ago looked like a seriously wounded animal limping towards Sir Philip Green's rescuing arms and a £9 billion takeover, such figures appear miraculous. In fact, they are a reflection of what can happen when an organisation is brave enough to confront painful truths about itself, back its turnaround plan with significant investment in product ranges, store design and customer service, and show faith in advertising's power to woo back the deserters.
It is a measure of how far M&S's voyage of rediscovery has progressed that its advertising, spearheaded by Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, took the Grand Prix at this year's IPA Effectiveness Awards. According to the judges, the "stunning" recovery at M&S was communicated by advertising which had caused products to "fly off the shelves". (Not least M&S chocolate puddings, whose sales have increased by 3,500 per cent!)
This year was proof positive that the "Your M&S" campaign has real sustainability. Particularly because of its ability to bring M&S to life across all areas of its activity, from food and kidswear, to financial services.
And although such calculations can be a bit "finger in the wind", there is evidence to suggest M&S's increased commitment to advertising contributed to an extra £6 million worth of PR and 18 million more customer visits.
Other figures, though, are incontestable -- food and clothing sales up 9.2 per cent and 10.7 per cent respectively during the year. Footfall, transaction and the rising average value of baskets taken through the checkouts all contributed to a strong sales performance.
At the same time, the company's "Look behind the label" campaign, promoting its ethical credentials, has been cited by Citicorp analysts as a contributor to M&S's recovery and a likely important factor in its future performance as social and environmental factors increasingly influence consumer purchases.
For both M&S and its agency, success has been far from overnight. (How many of us still cringe at RKCR/Y&R's awful early stab at an M&S commercial featuring a plump naked woman running up a hill.) To M&S's credit, the company held its nerve and kept faith in its agency when, given its previous antipathy to advertising, it could so easily have reverted to type.
This year, the results of a strong relationship with M&S's marketing chief, Steven Sharp, has born tangible fruit. "In advertising terms, M&S is finally coming of age," the agency declares. And it is hard to disagree.
But why this year? Mainly because of how well the ads are in harmony with the self-assurance of a company confident about its offering, and the communication of it. As Stuart Rose, the M&S chief executive, said after the recent financial results: "There's no point in promoting unless the product stands scrutiny -- you can't sell a great product in lousy stores; you can't sell a lousy product in great stores."
Nowhere does this self-confidence manifest itself more strongly than in the food campaign -- "This is not just food, this is M&S food" -- which has been the vanguard for driving sales and changing brand perceptions. Moreover, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then M&S must be drowning in adulation.
Indeed, such is the mouth-watering appeal of the ads, that one focus group respondent was moved to remark that they "make you feel like stroking something. They're very sensual." (And this was not a reference to the newly launched underwear ads, which present the products as fun, and not just functional.)
This confident and clever approach is now to be seen just as effectively in the womenswear advertising, where the evergreen Twiggy, who appeals to traditional M&S customers as well as younger shoppers, is being teamed up with current catwalk luminaries such as Erin O'Connor and Lizzy Jagger. The renewed sureness of touch is equally reflected in creative work for the Autograph men's clothing range, which eschews male models in favour of Bryan Ferry, a personality liked by men of all ages.
M&S may have been a late convert to advertising (and it has certainly had to endure a lot of pain to bring it to its senses), but nobody should think less of it for that. Advertiser of the Year? The notion is ludicrous no longer.
In many ways, Boots, which vied closely with M&S for this year's accolade, has a similar story to tell. Like M&S, Boots was also one of the kings of the high street. Like M&S, it too lost its way. Like M&S, it too has reinvented itself and used effective advertising to reconnect with a modern Britain.
For a long time, Boots looked to be in relentless decline. Its trusted role as the high-street pharmaceutical specialist had become eroded as competition intensified and "three for two" offers took over.
It is not that Boots is abandoning its value-for-money offering. But, with Mother now its lead agency, even its workhorse ads under the "look and feel better for less" theme are entertaining enough to be worth more than one look. At the other end of the scale, its ravishing campaigns for Boots No7 have transformed it into the UK's fastest-growing cosmetics brand, with a 10.8 per cent market value growth over the past year.
Meanwhile, the company has been using advertising to regain and reinforce its healthcare credentials, with its "Change One Thing" ads pinpointing its expertise on everything from hay-fever and headache relief, to vitamin courses. This year, 1.2 million people have signed up to its Health Club.
Boots is not out of the mire yet (its trading profits for the year to March were down by 13.9 per cent). But an improved offering and advertising that both works hard and looks good will be what pulls it through.
If COI, the third contender in this category, was a Boots customer, it would now qualify for free prescriptions and eye tests. However, the Government's information specialist continues to display a youthfulness that belies its 60 years.
Not only does it remain the catalyst for an endless stream of award-winning creative work, but it will always encourage its agencies to go the extra mile. Moreover, it has almost doubled its digital media spend in the past five years to £8.1 million. Not bad for an old 'un.
Recent winners: Channel 4 (2005); The Independent (2004); Sky (2003); five (2002); Glamour (2001)
HIGHLIGHTS OF 2006
April Reports a fourth-quarter sales growth of 9.1 per cent, in sharp contrast to total high-street sales, which drop 1.4 per cent.
July Announces an 8.2 per cent increase in like-for-like sales for the 13 weeks to 1 July.
August Signs Lizzy Jagger for womenswear campaign. "Look behind the label" named the most successful M&S campaign to date by City analysts. Signs Bryan Ferry to be the face of Autograph men's clothing range.
September Breaks new TV advertising featuring Jagger, Twiggy and models Laura Bailey and Noemie Lenoir.
November Wins IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix. Signs Shirley Bassey for Christmas campaign. Announces highest first-half profit figures for almost a decade.
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