THE CLIENT CATALYSTS: Alan McWalter - M&S's marketing director loves the business but is realistic about what advertising should achieve

Relaxing: "By taking skiing holidays! My job is very demanding and all my spare time is focused on the family. But I like to keep abreast of other issues. I'm passionate about music - opera, classical, jazz and rock. I also play the guitar."

Recent reading: The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe. "It's all about the training of astronauts and the 'space race' of the 60s. It totally intrigues me."

Favourite TV: "Anything documentary-style and drama - I loved Morse."

Favourite all-time ad: Persil's "Someone's Mum doesn't know

... made in 1953 by J.Walter Thompson.

Dream job: "I'd love to have been a musician or a doctor, but marketing director won in the end."

"It was an ad ahead of its time. We didn't go into it lightly; we researched it very carefully and it made a very bold statement. But it created a promise which Marks & Spencer couldn't live up to at the time."

Marks & Spencer's marketing and e-commerce director, and the head of its financial services arm, Alan McWalter, displays his trademark honesty when discussing the retailer's return to TV advertising last year. In the unlikely case that your memory needs a jog, the campaign featured a larger model sprinting up a hill, divesting herself of her clothes and shouting "I'm normal!

on reaching the top.

The spot, created by M&S's then new advertising agency, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, was one of the most hotly-debated ads of 2001, both in the City and in creative departments all over Soho. Aimed at repositioning M&S in the minds of consumers as the definitive place to shop for clothes whatever your shape or style, the new tagline was "Exclusively for everyone".

McWalter now concedes that, had he known then what he knows now, he would probably not have signed off the ad, which, while causing a flurry of headlines and a certain fascination from the public, did not have the performance results the company so badly needed.

"The thinking behind the ad was that M&S could provide solutions for everyone - whatever their size and shape, which would have been fine if we had then delivered that,

he shrugs.

It also came under fire from religious groups who objected to the poster ads featuring the naked model. "Hindsight's a wonderful thing,

he smiles.

"If you're going to make a promise in your advertising, you've got to be able to live up to it,

he says, although he vehemently defends the thinking behind the campaign, and the agency which created it.

McWalter joined M&S in January from Kingfisher, coming home to roost with his former colleague Roger Holmes, now heading M&S' entire retail operation. Holmes is widely tipped to take over from the current chief executive, Luc Vandervelde - the Belgian drafted in to implement a recovery process for the chain in 2000. However, M&S has publicly rubbished the rumours.

While Holmes has set City tongues wagging with enthusiasm, McWalter does not enjoy the same profile. He comes under gentle fire from analysts for his "uninspiring

presentation style and "that tricksy campaign with the naked bird". "Perhaps it wasn't wise to remind M&S customers that they all had big bottoms,

one opines.

But the City is also starting to be a bit more impressed by the "man from Woolies", and welcomed the recent fourth-quarter sales which seem to confirm M&S's undoubted recovery. The retailer has been working hard this year, becoming one of the best performing businesses in the FTSE 100 in 2001 and reported a 20 per cent leap in half-year profits.

Warehouse's Yasmin Yusuf was brought in by Holmes to become its design chief and the Next founder, George Davies, was also hired to work on Per Una, M&S's ladieswear range, helping clothing sales rise by 16.5 per cent in the 11 weeks to 30 March.

But whatever his manner with the charts and figures when talking to those in the City, get McWalter on to the subject of advertising, and his eyes light up, according to those in the business who have worked with him.

"He's a thoroughbred marketer. He listens, understands and is very creatively-minded. And he's not a control freak,

one says. "He's methodical - a plodder - and has risen to the challenge at M&S with aplomb,

another says, adding that it would be no great surprise if M&S was McWalter's last port of call in his career voyage.

Those qualities were shown when he started in January by calling an immediate review and appointed RKCR/Y&R as M&S's above-the-line agency and Walker Media to handle the media side in March. His swiftness to act so soon came from what he, and other senior management, saw as a need to inject consistency into M&S's rather muddled messages: "The company had projected itself in so many different ways. We needed to consolidate and link those messages together. Previously we'd been working with a range of agencies, and it showed in our marketing activity,

he remembers.

"When I joined the business, it was in a very different shape than it is now, and it was struggling with two things. One was a denial to face the real issues it was facing, but the second was more positive - a desire to embrace new ways to get us out of the mire we were in.

He admits being the 'new boy' was quite scary: "M&S had never had a marketing director before, and I was this strange, new animal, bringing a new discipline which was both intriguing and questionable for some people at the time,

he smiles.

McWalter's years heading marketing at the Kingfisher-owned Woolworths have made him an experienced, if low-profile, expert in getting the most out of agencies. And in spite - and perhaps as a result - of his earlier frankness about RKCR/Y&R's inaugural work, and the consequent raising of that profile, he claims the relationship between client and agency is sound and healthy.

"I've always had a belief that you should look at an agency as being a part of your business; a part which works with you in a co-ordinated way and is part of your metabolism. When we appointed RKCR/Y&R, it was because it demonstrated a very sound understanding of the brand - an empathy with the brand - and it has been able to translate that into creative solutions which we've used to good advantage,

he stresses.

Since it started working on the account, McWalter claims, the agency has demonstrated all the attributes clients are after: "The amount of time, passion, enthusiasm and, no doubt, frustration, that the team there has invested has been substantial, and I think the results are the consequence of that."

The agency has also worked on various campaigns for M&S's food offering, as well as the current "perfect

press and poster work, as part of a strategy to keep customers' minds focused on what M&S does well.

The strapline? "Fashion with function. It's what we do best". The TV work - and the strategy of keeping M&S a core destination store - was continued at Christmas with a celebrity-packed spot, starring Zoe Ball.

"It is critically important for M&S to be confident, front-foot and visible at Christmas. That ad achieved that with sparkle,

McWalter argues.

He was rewarded with a better-than-usual Christmas season, with sales rising by another 9 per cent in the seven weeks to 12 January this year.

What with the signing of David Beckham to promote a line of menswear, McWalter admits that celebrity endorsement is a useful tool for a brand, especially when it comes to above-the-line advertising.

"The brand has always had a relationship with celebrities - we want to build partnerships with those who show a natural affinity with M&S and demonstrate the kind of lifestyle which is appropriate to our core target consumers."

But it's not just high-profile above-the-line campaigns which get McWalter excited. He's a firm fan of direct marketing, the use of publications and sponsorship - but they must be used in the right way and at the right time.

"One of the things I wanted to do was to get absolute clarity in what M&S stood for and how we could drive product excellence in each of the business areas,

he says, keen to assert the importance of using the right marketing tools for each one.

The decision to use a PR approach for the launch of per una was right, McWalter says, because its target audience of fashion-conscious women are hungry to pick up style messages from the press. "There are some areas of our business which are better served by other marketing tools than above-the-line advertising."

Although McWalter won't reveal details, he admits the company has been reviewing its policy on loyalty cards - tools used mercilessly by M&S's rivals and now seen as a proactive inevitability. "In the early 90s, when others were developing loyalty schemes, M&S was flying. It didn't need them. The market, consumers and the competition have changed since.

He claims that M&S's customer relation management is as sophisticated as any of its rivals.

He explains that the company's sponsorship of the Great Britain Olympic team was dropped in November last year because, well, M&S couldn't afford it. "As we went through the recovery programme, we had to be careful about controlling our costs and be discerning about what we did."

McWalter admits a tough part of his job is to continue convincing a company, which had never used advertising before - and has in the past prided itself on that fact - to keep on funding it. "I'm ultimately responsible for the health of the brand. I'm accountable. M&S isn't the easiest organisation to work for, but we come up with the sound and solid reasons as to why this should happen,

he argues.

And despite his obvious love of the ad business, he's realistic about how others, particularly M&S shareholders, regard the role of marketing and advertising. "I'm a shareholder of this company, as well as others, and I'm interested in what value the management team create for us. Good advertising changes people's perceptions of organisations and brands, and builds confidence and trust,

he stresses.

"But I certainly don't think shareholders invest in a company because of its advertising. The issue here is whether the management is using the advertising wisely to develop the business, to reinforce the brand and obviously, sell the product. It's simple - any company which is doing that well and consistently, using advertising as a powerful vehicle to help in the process, is increasing shareholder value."

His CV points to a man who's had a long career in a retail environment which now is probably nothing like the one he joined in 1987 when he took a job at the electronics firm Ferguson. Before that were jobs at Spillers Food and Unilever and a degree in biochemistry from London University.

After Ferguson, McWalter moved to Comet, where he became the marketing and development director, and then on to Kingfisher to a top job as the marketing director at Woolworths.

So, working in a business sector noted for increasing competitiveness and consolidation, how does he view the advertising industry - itself grappling with those very issues? After all, at the time he appointed RKCR as M&S's UK creative hotshop, the agency was finishing a deal with Young & Rubicam which would make it part of a global network and subsequently part of WPP.

"From a client's perspective, it's important to ask what consolidation brings. If the answer is scale, resource, talent and a cost advantage, then of course, it's a bonus. If it comes at the expense of focus or understanding, I'd seek to question it."

Although firmly wedded to the network agency, he continues to salute the UK's independent agencies. "They're a good reflection of the flux taking place in the market,

he says of Campaign's agency of the year, Mother. "They're bringing new ideas and creativity, but aside from all that, are proving that client service is also at the heart of what they do - just look at the ones which shop there

he says admiringly, adding: "It's a bit like us really."


Lives: Esher, Surrey

Drives: BMW 740

Family: Wife Claire and children James, 14 and Elizabeth, 9