The man trying to buy his lunch in the Holborn Sainsbury's Local is
a mite confused - the nice lady by the till is smiling but clearly has
no intention of swiping his cheese and pickle sandwich, taking his cash
or asking him if he'd like cashback.
He's politely directed to an open till by Sara Weller, the supermarket
chain's deputy managing director, who is causing a ripple of interest
around the store as she poses for Campaign's pictures. It's something
she's used to as a widely respected client with almost two decades of
marketing at Mars, Abbey National - and now Sainsbury's - under her
When she arrived to head the marketing department two years ago, the
group was grappling with a downward spiral in sales, failing staff
morale, the aftermath of the damaging "Value to shout about" TV campaign
and getting short shrift from the City, especially when it lost its
place as the number-two chain in the UK to Asda.
Now, things are looking up. Its interim results, posted later this
month, will show whether Weller's marketing strategy has paid off in
profits as the retailer hauls itself back from 12 years of soft
Weller, who was promoted to deputy managing director four months ago,
looks out over the atrium of the company's new head office in Holborn
and denies it's all down to her efforts that things are improving.
"There are about 700 people in my department all making it work," she
laughs, pushing up her sleeves and jabbing the table with a finger.
Her modesty belies the tough decisions she's been forced to make since
arriving, grasping the chain's roster of advertising and marketing
agencies by the short and curlies and reinventing Sainsbury's. Hers was
the task of clearing up the mess after staff and customers were left
irritated and disappointed from the "Value to shout about" campaign of
1999, produced by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.
AMV paid for the mistake by seeing the prestigious TV account move into
M&C Saatchi in April 1999 - a considerable blow for the agency, which
had handled the TV brief for some 20 years and was behind a string of
famous campaigns for the brand such as the "Everyone's favourite recipe"
But AMV, which was first hired for the account by the current chief
executive, Sir Peter Davis, when he worked for Sainsbury's as marketing
director in 1979, was unrelenting in its mission to win back the
mainstay TV business, and showed its devotion for the brand by setting
up a standalone agency - AMV Advance - to handle direct marketing for
the company. Clark & Taylor, which had handled local marketing for
Sainsbury's for 14 years, was snapped up for its expertise and bundled
in with the new agency.
Thus was the scene set for Weller's arrival in January 2000, fresh from
a three-year stint at Abbey National where she overhauled the building
society's image with an emotional set of brand values based around Euro
RSCG Wnek Gosper's strapline: "Because life's complicated enough."
"In some ways, the job there - consolidating into one agency and giving
the company a face and values that consumers could relate to - was a joy
compared with the task at Sainsbury's," Weller recalls. "Tackling a
brand in trouble with so much heritage was the real challenge, and
always will be to clients who need to reinvent brands and
So then came the killer blow to M&C Saatchi when AMV was reappointed to
the TV account in June 2000. Weller says a combination of factors,
including M&C Saatchi's failure to grasp a hold on the slumping fortunes
of Sainsbury's with its "Making life taste better" campaign and the
simple fact that "AMV had better ideas", made the switch inevitable.
Looking back at the somewhat chequered ad history of the brand, Weller
is firm in her assertion that the consolidation of TV work back into one
agency was right. "There are two choices if clients feel the offering
isn't right. You look within the agency and work through the issues, or
you change the agency," she says. Her decision-making, if it didn't
delight M&C Saatchi's joint chief executive, Moray MacLennan, certainly
impressed him with its speed. "She is honest and straight - she never
tried to fudge the issues. She made things happen very quickly," he
"I've always worked for companies that have taken the relationships with
their agencies very seriously. In general, it has always been one brand,
one agency," she says. Lucky for her, then, that AMV remained so hungry
to reclaim what it considered its own. However, Weller acknowledges that
this time, perhaps, total consolidation was not the answer.
"Having two agencies working in parallel on a retail business, which
handles lots of different marketing and advertising activity, was a
set-up that worked. The team in place when I arrived had concerns about
the ability of one agency to handle that volume of work, and they were
worried about getting too deeply into a rut with one of them."
Typically, Weller is the first to admit that the relationship between
client and agency is crucially important.
"AMV has the brand in the blood. If you work with an agency for long
enough, they really become immersed in it, just as much as the brand
team do. The people in the business might change, but you get a double
insurance policy if you have an agency that understands the brand
She is also keen to stress the hard work and trust needed to keep
relationships sweet. "It's increasingly difficult to hang on to that
trust and loyalty - the number of ways in which marketers use their
money to reach audiences means advertising doesn't have such an
automatic hold on such a large proportion of a lot of people's budgets.
Lots of clients, particularly in telecoms and financial services, are
using more specifically targeted data to talk to consumers. So for them,
broadcast advertising becomes a less important tool."
She also points out the changing face of the media landscape means
other, physical hurdles have to be leapt, which can also erode trust.
"Clients and agencies think they have to be more radical, dangerous and
different, and you end up taking more risks," she shrugs. "Then there's
more chance that you do something which won't work, and that's where the
trust can come a cropper."
Clearly, though, the upheaval of agency swaparounds has not been to the
detriment of Weller's strategy. She says sales are up 25 per cent on the
back of the Jamie Oliver campaign. So who does she look to for cunning
steerage in today's fragmented media market, apart from Sainsbury's
in-house strategists and planners?
"It should always be a team effort - we look to our agencies for
expertise in the markets they cover, to understand what's available,
what the value for money is, what its role is within the strategy, how
much we should be doing and how well we can manage this."
On the back of those figures, Weller is adamant that advertising
"We have a model that demonstrates the impact of advertising and we know
that Jamie Oliver is generating 25 per cent more sales than the previous
ads," she says. Despite their high impact, though, TV ads make up only a
quarter of Sainsbury's marketing budget, and Weller works within a media
quagmire of ways to get more customers.
"TV is an incredibly powerful mechanism for creating customer
expectation in your brand - it's second to what you actually experience
when you enter a store. The TV ads create the promise, and the stores
and the products deliver that."
If trust and loyalty are key words in Weller's vocabulary, the way in
which she involves herself with the running of the account within the
agencies reflects this. She wants people within all agency disciplines
working together solely on her business. "If you have two clients, and
they both say 'jump', who do you respond to?" is her reasoning.
Weller believes agencies are perfectly poised to bring results working
in this way. "The real beauty within agencies lies in their ability to
exchange best practice at senior level. Agencies are good at that, using
what they know about separate clients in a sensible, confidential way to
improve issues on a generic basis. When that happens, you get people
who've worked on other big brands - such as Guinness and BT - all adding
value to the mix," she stresses. Weller cites Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper's
managing director, Chris Pinnington, as a master at encouraging
cross-fertilisation in this way.
In fact, Weller is so enthusiastic about the way agencies work, it's not
hard to imagine her running one. She admits, laughing, that she's been
approached, but won't reveal by whom, saying her positive view of what
agencies can contribute to people's businesses wouldn't make it a hard
job to believe in. "Agencies appeal because of their small size and
because people are a critical component of what they deliver," she
However, she adds, it's unlikely to happen. "I like the diversity of
being client-side, and also the fact that what I do has a very direct
impact on the customers." There's also the small question of fitting in
a family - Weller's chemistry professor husband and two young children -
while being on constant call.
Apart from established agencies such as AMV, Euro RSCG and M&C Saatchi,
Weller is continually impressed by the fortunes of creative hotshops in
a consolidating advertising market.
"It's great that those kinds of businesses can start, and then get on
the rosters of huge multinational clients because the work is so
It's all about choice. It's a great demonstration of the value of
diversity and the way in which the market operates. Those who offer
choice will, undoubtedly, be successful."
And so it follows that she is little perturbed about the impact of that
consolidation on the life of clients.
"I'm a huge believer in competition and market forces and I have
complete confidence that if we were to see a situation which would act
against the interests of clients, it would create a market opportunity
for new suppliers - such as independent hotshops."
Big networks that recognise clients' need for choice would do well to
support small hotshops, she advises. But adds: "There'll always be
clients with global needs. There's no panic."
Weller is equally unflustered about the increasing number of clients,
including Unilever and Procter & Gamble, which pay their agencies
according to the performance of their ad campaigns. She's not convinced
it's a move to be made by any client other than a big multinational such
as Mars, where she worked for 14 years. She claims such mammoths can be
emboldened to take risks in their strategies if they can hold an agency
accountable and know it is big enough to overcome acknowledged
weaknesses in particular markets.
"We don't operate a formalised and stringent performance-based mechanism
in the way multinational companies do, because we work on a trust basis
with a primary agency, rather than a huge roster," Weller says.
Implementing a payment structure to media buying performance is
something she is working for, but she stresses the time, and
statistic-intensive process, as a negative factor. Also, the
ever-changing goalposts of what constitutes good creative performance
makes such a move unlikely for Sainsbury's creative agencies.
In the typical way of the perennial high-achiever, she asks: "How can I
know that 25 per cent uptake in sales is good - should it have been 40
Intimate details Lives: Basingstoke
Drives: Peugeot 406
Family: Husband Mark is a chemistry professor at Southampton University.
Two children, Sophie, 9, and Adam, 6.
Relaxing: "I never work at weekends - they're for the family. We're
currently decorating and hammering round the house after an extension.
I'm also a keen natural history fan."
Recent reading: The Best a Man Can Get by John O'Farrell. The Lying
Stones of Marrakech by Steven J Gould.
Favourite TV: "We all love to watch Scrapheap Challenge on Sunday
nights. I'm also keen on Have I Got News For You and Never Mind the
Dream job: "I'd love to have been an archaeologist, but I think I'd get
fed up in the winter. My dream job is doing something I'm good at -
that's what motivates me."