THE CLIENT CATALYSTS - SARA WELLER: In the first of a series of interviews with agenda setters in the client world, Camilla Palmer talks to Sainsbury's deputy MD

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

per cent?"

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."

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