THE BOARDROOM PLAYERS: PAUL WILKINSON - Rank Hovis McDougall’s chairman knows a thing or two about ads, having spent 30 years dealing with agencies. And he’s learnt that great ads aren’t born instantly

Next time you’re experiencing pre-pitch nerves, spare a thought for client anxiety. If Paul Wilkinson, the chairman of Rank Hovis McDougall, the pounds 1.7 billion food business owned by Tomkins, is to be believed, those on the buying side of the advertising equation are sweating just as much.

Next time you’re experiencing pre-pitch nerves, spare a thought for

client anxiety. If Paul Wilkinson, the chairman of Rank Hovis McDougall,

the pounds 1.7 billion food business owned by Tomkins, is to be

believed, those on the buying side of the advertising equation are

sweating just as much.

’Judging advertising is like being inside a huge pressure cooker,’ he

says. ’The advertising industry, the whole pitch process, is geared to

making clients come up with instant judgments of campaigns as if it is

somehow macho to be able to assess work on the spot.’

Turning the spotlight in the client’s direction and expecting an

immediate response is not helpful, he says, if the idea is to come up

with the best campaign. For starters, it takes no account of

hierarchical politics within the client team.

’Who responds honestly in a situation like that? The kids underneath are

hardly going to criticise the chief in public, are they? And if you put

the kids on first, they’re shit scared about what they’re going to say

in case they say the wrong things.’

Wilkinson should know. He has more than 30 years’ experience of the

agency pitch from his time in the food industry working for brand-driven

organisations such as Unilever, Grand Metropolitan and RHM where

advertising is the fuel that fires sales and profits.

When Tomkins fought off Hanson to emerge as the victorious bidder for

RHM in 1992, cynics did not for a moment believe Tomkins’ promises of

brand investment. For conglomerates, as the 70s and 80s had shown, were

about buying followed swiftly by slashing and burning to get costs down

and short-term profitability up. Brand rape, rather than brand

investment, was the norm.

But those who predicted at the time of the Tomkins takeover that the

deal signalled the death-knell for some of Britain’s oldest brands -

Hovis, Mr Kipling and Bisto among them - have been proven wrong.

Today, annual sales of RHM’s top 18 brands stand at pounds 600 million

and represent a third of the company’s business. RHM’s total annual

sales of pounds 1.7 billion and profits of pounds 164 million represent

- in turn - about a third of all Tomkins sales and profits. The

division’s performance is critical to the health of Tomkins and to its

stock market rating.

Wilkinson’s dislike of the pressure-cooker environment of the pitch

stems from a belief that great ad campaigns evolve - they are not

created overnight.

’My philosophy on advertising is that there are few great campaigns, a

large number of good campaigns and a ginormous number of pretty mediocre

campaigns. If the marketing population has a problem with agencies, it’s

that they are too keen to go with sub-optimal creative executions in

order to meet production deadlines and media buying schedules.’

He is also critical of clients who too readily succumb to the agency


’These are very important decisions. The most important thing is to get

the best possible advertising you can. If that means taking that little

bit longer to do it, then take longer.’

And if that costs more, so be it.

Such thinking is fitting for a man whose brands have been around for a

long time and need to be managed ’very, very, very carefully’ he says,

not least because of their significance within the business as a


The 18 biggest brands under his remit divide into three categories.

RHM’s bread brands are Hovis, Mother’s Pride, Nimble and Granary. Its

cake brands are Mr Kipling, Cadbury and Lyons. And its 11 grocery brands

are Bisto, Paxo, Saxa, Attora, Golden Shred, Robertson’s, Sharwood’s,

McDougall’s, Bee-Ro, Just Juice and Rombouts coffee.

In terms of their sales value, Hovis and Mr Kipling are the biggest,

registering sales of about pounds 160 million and pounds 130 million

respectively, and making them the biggest spenders on advertising within

the RHM portfolio.

Sharwood’s, Cadbury and Bisto each sell around the pounds 65 million

mark, with Golden Shred, Lyons and Mother’s Pride around pounds 50

million each a year.

The remaining brands register sales of pounds 10 million to pounds 15

million and, in the main, use advertising tactically. Paxo, for

instance, will adopt television in the run-up to Christmas.

’These brands have been around for a long time,’ Wilkinson says. ’The

role of marketing within RHM is to ensure they remain either the brand

leader or the number two in their markets. Advertising plays an

absolutely essential part in maintaining brand strength.’

And brand strength, as far as Wilkinson is concerned, is about one

thing: market share. He, like others among Campaign’s Boardroom Players,

is sceptical about the value of some of the industry’s own evaluation

procedures. On calculating the efficiency of television spend, he says:

’You can prove you’ve bought the best cost per thousand by relating it

to the station average price. But everyone seems to beat the


His guide to assessing whether his advertising is working comprises

three things. First, market share. ’You know you have got most things

right if it’s going up.’ Second, research indicators. Third, ’Do you

feel good about it? Are you happy to stand up in front of your friends

and say, that’s good advertising?’

And where does Wilkinson believe he is likely to find good advertising -

mainstream agencies or creative hotshops? RHM’s top five spending brands

are all with mainstream players, and this is by design, not


While he believes using hotshops can work well for the smaller spending

brands - such as Paxo which is with the Advertising Brasserie - where

opting for a more risky creative execution can make up for a low spend,

he would not risk handing over a brand with 25 years’ heritage. Where

the spend is more than pounds 3.5 million, he prefers a bigger


’It’s all about people. You either get on with your agency team and

respect them, or you don’t. In bigger agencies there is more room for

shuffling people around the edges. You should only change your agency as

a last resort.’

By way of example, he cites Hovis. RHM’s relationship with Collett

Dickenson Pearce which was one of the longest standing in the business.

CDP had handled Hovis for about 30 years and produced the famous ’boy on

the bike’ commercials, until, as Wilkinson puts it, ’Mr Langdon (then

CDP’s managing director) turned up.’

’There were reasons why we felt CDP wasn’t up to the job of Hovis any

more,’ he says. ’By the early 90s, the campaign was turning to


The bread market was also changing, with developments being made largely

in the white bread sector and supermarkets increasing competition with

the introduction of in-store bakeries.

Hovis’s advertising needed updating, but CDP’s ideas were too radical

for Wilkinson. ’They tried to persuade us to run ads that were

completely inappropriate, completely off the wall, like taking pieces of

bread and holding them up to the light to show Hovis was better because

you can’t see through it.’

It may not be most people’s idea of ’radical’ but with a brand that is

built on 50 years of tradition, the way Wilkinson talks about it, coming

up with ideas like that was, for him, tantamount to heresy.

The business went out to pitch and by 1995 RHM had put its entire Hovis

business into DMB&B. The new agency relaunched the brand with its

’raised the Hovis way’ campaign. A version of the work, first launched

in April 1997 and featuring individuals who have been ’raised the Hovis

way’, is still running. Market share over the period has increased from

7.8 per cent in 1996 to 10.1 per cent in 1998.

But as RHM found with Sharwood’s, changing agencies and devising a new

campaign that meets the brief strategically and creatively does not

guarantee increased market share.

Five years ago, Sharwood’s, then at WCRS, went for the recipe


That grew the overall Asian cooking market but did little for the


When Amanda Walsh left WCRS to join CCST - now Walsh Trott Chick Smith -

the business went with her. There her team devised the ’it’s half the

world, it’s Sharwood’s’ campaign.

’That was a creative interpretation of a strategic direction but

unfortunately it didn’t work,’ Wilkinson says. ’Walsh Trott had another

go but they were shot; emotionally they were gone, they’d hit the wall!

We hired TBWA and, predictably, it came up with a poster

campaign ... all agencies have their formats. If you go to AMV you get a

personality, if you go to TBWA you get posters.’

Wilkinson says TBWA’s ’Sharwood’s: stir up some passion’ work has the

makings of a good campaign, but in terms of market share, it is too

early to tell whether it is a success.

There cannot be many agencies who would turn down the chance to get RHM

brands on their client list. But some would find it constraining to work

within the confines of such history.

As David Jones, the chairman of DMB&B, says: ’This is about evolution,

not revolution.’

But the paradox of the marketing world is that it is inherently geared

towards change - which is seen as exciting and expansive - and not to

continuity, which is generally considered dull. This, Wilkinson

believes, presents an opportunity for agencies. His argument is that

successful brands need product differentiation and need to create an

emotional link with the consumer. Losing one, or both, leads to decline

and then death.

’Brands are often seen by marketers as a means of getting the next job.

The system runs the risk of being driven by the wrong things. We must

remember we are doing this for the consumer, not the product manager’s

CV,’ Wilkinson says.

’Agencies have the opportunity to ensure continuity stays in place. If

they can produce advertising that communicates hard benefits and retains

that emotional link, you win the jackpot. And, ultimately, winning the

jackpot means making money.’

The Wilkinson file


Chairman, RHM


Deputy chairman, RHM


Managing director, British Bakeries


Managing director, food services division, RHM


Managing director, Express Foods


Joins Express Foods


Unilever graduate trainee


Hovis/DMB&B/pounds 5.5 million

Mr Kipling/Mellors Reay/pounds 4.5 million

Bisto/AMV/pounds 3.5 million

Sharwood’s/TBWA/pounds 2.5 million

Golden Shred/AMV/pounds 0.5 million


’Frank Lowe because he generated a new wave of great ads in the late 60s

and 70s that established CDP as a unique agency’


’The last four years of Hovis ads because we’ve done everything to

evolve a good campaign

into a great campaign’


’Lord MacLaurin for making Tesco an outstanding retail success’


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