THE BOARDROOM PLAYERS: ALLAN LEIGHTON - Asda’s chief executive is a self-confessed fan of wallpaper advertising who has turned round the supermarket chain by sticking doggedly to the price message

Somewhere in a Turkish holiday resort, there is a fruit stall that carries a sign proclaiming its goods are all at ’Asda price’.

Somewhere in a Turkish holiday resort, there is a fruit stall that

carries a sign proclaiming its goods are all at ’Asda price’.

Allan Leighton, Asda’s chief executive since 1996, knows this because

one of his customers sent him a holiday snap of it this summer.

No, he says, it was not evidence of an early test programme on the

viability of launching an Asda superstore in Turkey. Rather it shows

that ’Asda price’, the no-nonsense label that goes hand in hand with an

image of Mrs Housewife tapping the pocket of her jeans in time with what

is probably the corniest advertising jingle on TV, has established

itself as ’a universal currency for value’.

Leighton does not care that the jingle is corny, nor that the ads look

cheap, nor that we may be getting bored with them because we all got it

a very long time ago. Nor is he bothered that they will never, ever win

any awards; in fact, he is positively ecstatic about the fact they


’I am a fan of wallpaper advertising,’ he says, sitting back on a comfy

sofa in the Tango meeting room (yes, its walls are orange) at his Leeds

head office. ’The most important thing about advertising is that it is

consistent and supports the brand. That’s why I’m a bit of a cynic about

an advertising world that gets so wrapped up in producing very creative

advertising rather than asking whether the ad underpins the values of

the product. Ours is wallpaper and I love it!’

When Leighton joined Asda in March 1992, the company was in a mess.

An attempt to take Asda upmarket in the late 80s had gone disastrously

wrong. When Archie Norman was appointed chief executive in 1991, he

refinanced the business with a rescue rights issue and set about getting

it back on track. Much of Norman’s plan was about a return to focusing

on value - both in the product and how it was marketed.

The infamous ’pocket tap’ ads had been ditched when the group attempted

its ill-fated move upmarket. They had been replaced by campaigns from

Bartle Bogle Hegarty starring Julie Walters, Victoria Wood and Nicholas

Lyndhurst shopping in exotic locations like Istanbul and by a

food-focused campaign that ran under the strapline: ’It ’as to be


Leighton, working with Rick Bendel, group chairman of Publicis, the

agency which has held the Asda account for nine years, reinstated the

old campaign.

Since then the main tenets of its advertising - the focus on price, the

pocket tap and the jingle - have not changed. They have been reworked

numerous times - there has been a Christmas version, a history-of-Asda

version, a children’s party version, but the central message has not


Today, the Norman-inspired turn-around is virtually complete. Asda is

the UK’s third-biggest supermarket chain by sales, after Tesco and

Sainsbury’s, with 220 superstores and around 6.6 million customers going

through the tills each week. In its last financial year, the group

reported sales of pounds 7.6 billion. Profits before exceptionals rose

14.4 per cent to pounds 405 million and its all-important market share

is at an all-time high of 12.3 per cent.

Asda spends around pounds 25 million a year on advertising the

supermarket and a further pounds 5 million on George, its fast-growing

clothing business that, during the last financial year, brought in sales

of pounds 400 million.

According to research from MMS, Asda is the sixth-biggest retail

advertiser; Boots tops the spending league with an estimated pounds 38.5

million budget, Sainsbury’s ranks third with pounds 32.4 million,

Safeway seventh with pounds 23.1 million and the market leader, Tesco,

ranks tenth with an annual spend of pounds 20.7 million.

Both the Asda and George brands are handled by Publicis with the

majority of the spend going on television, although Asda also makes

heavy use of the tabloid press and local radio to support new store

openings and to drive a particular product range in a certain


As long as Leighton is in charge, radical change to Asda’s advertising

looks highly unlikely. His 17 years at Mars, where he started his career

as a salesman in 1974, drummed home the lesson that advertising is a

strategic tool used to build brands. Unlike some of his rivals in the

retail business, he does not believe that television advertising should

be used as a tactical weapon to advertise product promotions. That, he

says, is the job of promotions, not advertising.

So what does he want his pounds 25 million spend to do for the business?

’It should support the brand, it should be very consistent and have one

or two seconds of magic,’ he says. ’When everyone says, ’Oh, bloody

hell, that Asda ad’s been on again,’ they haven’t been watching it but

they have taken it in. About 30 to 40 per cent of television is on but

not watched. If you can get recognition even when people are not

watching it, through the jingle, say, then that’s very powerful.’

Consistency is one thing, but can you really call a campaign that has

run along the same lines for at least six years (not including campaigns

run in the earlier, pre-Norman era) consistent? Wouldn’t mind-numbingly

repetitive be a better description?

Leighton admits there is a risk in sticking to one campaign so

religiously for so long of viewer inertia setting in. ’But what would

you rather have?

Something new or something reassuring? I think the role of advertising

in the brand is reassurance. It says: still here, still great, still

here, still great, still here, still great. Yes, you might think ’I wish

I had a bit more excitement’, but to get more than one message across is

very difficult. That’s why - and the advertising world will hate me for

saying this - advertising that wins awards is not necessarily the

advertising that sells product.’

The best-known example of that phenomenon is, of course, Safeway. Its

Molly and Harry campaign from Bates Dorland won an IPA effectiveness

award two years ago and was said to have ’captured the public’s

imagination’ and given Safeway a ’differentiated positioning as mother

and child friendly’.

But today, Safeway is struggling and is seen as the weakest of the big

four supermarket brands. One retail expert who did not want to be named

said: ’The advertising may have won lots of awards but the business

collapsed. Why? Because when people went into Safeway stores, it was not

like the ads. It created great expectation that the product could not


This reality gap is another of Leighton’s big criticisms of advertising

- although he blames the clients rather than the agencies for producing

ads that oversell. What is advertised must be true, he says. Whatever

you think of the Asda experience - with its cows that moo in the

in-store dairy, its professional greeters, its brolly men and its pet

parking zones - on price, Asda is often between 5 to 10 per cent less

expensive than any of its rivals.

’We can’t bang on about our range of finest foods because we haven’t

really got any yet,’ says Leighton. ’ But what I can bang on about is

price. When you have got a platform, sustaining that is actually more

difficult than shooting off to do something new.’

While Leighton’s marketing background means he probably takes a keener

interest in his company’s advertising than most chief executives and is

obsessive about the need to track customer perception, he does not spend

a lot of time on it. He sees all new campaigns, stopping the odd one

from time to time. ’People think I’m a boring bugger because I won’t let

them change things.’ He insists the agency/client relationship should be

at the top of the organisation and looks to Bendel at Publicis to be the

’custodian of the Asda brand’.

’Rick is very creative, he is very pragmatic. We might change marketing

directors, but I look to him to provide custody. He has been steeped in

the business for years. Will Publicis ever win an award for our


No. Does Rick worry about that? No. His measure of success is the same

as mine: what do customers think about our brand?’

For his part, Bendel says: ’The advertising world thinks Asda’s

advertising is naff; that it shows no consumer insight, that it doesn’t

reflect modern trends, that it is formulaic and caricatures mums. But it

is not about entertainment, it is about information and about

normalising shopping.

We are advertising to the public, not to the advertising community.’

Indeed. Although, it is still hard to believe that the same basic

message about value could not be communicated with wit or with more

aesthetic appeal - not just to make the ads more fun to watch but to

make them more effective. Certainly, the group’s public relations

campaigns, by contrast, are more engaging. Attacking the status quo on

book prices, on over-the-counter medicines and, latterly, on designer

labels has rammed home the ’value crusader’ message but in an

imaginative, iconoclastic way that has delivered reams of press

coverage. And the two TV campaigns for George - one to promote its

summer range and the other to push school uniforms - were vibrant and

appealing but still aimed at the price-conscious Asda shopper.

Despite his criticism of the advertising industry, Leighton says he is a

’reasonable fan’ of what he calls a ’blue-chip business’. However, he

believes the next three years will be tough for business and suggests

agencies should be thinking about how they would cope if revenues were

to fall by 25 per cent.

’In our own business, I can see a situation where profits in five years’

time might only be the same as they are today - that is the real

doomsday scenario. Do I think we’re heading for a full-blown recession?

No, because people will read the signs and make changes sooner. But if

you’re running your business the same way today as you were four months

ago, that’s probably not right. If clients cut back, what are the

agencies going to do?’

In the past year Leighton has held merger talks with both Safeway and

Kingfisher, the owner of Woolworths, B&Q and Comet. For different

reasons both sets of discussions came to nothing. But the desire to do

the right deal is still there. Perhaps radical corporate change may

tempt Leighton into an overhaul of his advertising. But even then it is

hard to imagine him surrendering his membership of the wallpaper

advertising club.

’Anyway,’ he says, ’advertising is the easy bit. The difficult bit and

the first thing you have to do is get the product right.’


1996 Chief executive, Asda

1992 Marketing director, Asda

1991 Sales director, Pedigree Petfoods

1974 Salesman, Mars Confectionery, rising to business sector manager

Other directorships Non-executive director of Wilson Holdings and of

Leeds Sporting

Main brands/agency/industry estimated spend

Asda - Publicis - pounds 25m

George - Publicis - pounds 5m

Most admired adman Rick Bendel ’because he is creative and practical and

thinks message first’ Favourite campaign The return to Asda price

’because it was a call to action to the company as well as to the


Business guru Don’t have one

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