CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/W. H. SMITH; What will it take to lift WH Smith’s flagging brand?

Why is retail work hard to do? W. H. Smith must find out.

Why is retail work hard to do? W. H. Smith must find out.

When Campaign broke the news of Bartle Bogle Hegarty losing its pounds

11 million W. H. Smith creative account (Campaign, last week), you may

have tried to recall classic W. H. Smith advertising.

When this failed, you might have turned to think of the last time you

paid a visit to a W. H. Smith store out of choice. Again, no joy. For

here is a company that has retained a solid familiarity, but lost the

ability to communicate its offering to the ten million customers who

visit its core 450-store stationery chain each week. Why?

First, the market has got tougher, leading to a profit fall for W. H.

Smith of 17 per cent to pounds 68 million in 1995. Competition has grown

as supermarkets allot more space to newspapers and magazines, while

specialist book-selling and music chains - including W. H. Smith’s own

Virgin Our Price, Waterstone’s and Paperchase - have expanded. Second,

product boundaries have dissolved, allowing consumers to buy W. H.

Smith-type products from a growing variety of sexier outlets.

But all this is an improbable excuse for the fact that the W. H. Smith

brand itself has so patently lost its way. ‘It seems to be suffering

from a lack of vision, or else a failure to communicate a strong

vision,’ says Chris Baker, the planning director at BST-BDDP, which

handles the Oddbins and Waterstone’s retail accounts.

‘W. H. Smith has a clear and proactive role in people’s lives, but it

has failed to capture this consistently, either in communications or at

store level. It should, if you like, be ‘essential for the non-

essentials’ - it’s the non-essentials that really make life worth


BBH has created two major campaigns since it won the W. H. Smith

business in November 1991. After 21 years at D’Arcy Masius Benton and

Bowles, the limp line, ‘there’s more to discover at W. H. Smith’, was

ditched for a campaign with higher impact. First, in 1992, BBH launched

the aggressive ‘we don’t sell...’ strategy. The campaign offered half of

every retail advertiser’s Holy Grail - namely a strong unifying line

that could drive short-term sales in key product categories such as

videos and books, where the advertising budget is largely supplier


Where the strategy flopped - and the reason why it was axed after a year

- was its failure to strengthen the customers’ relationship with the

overall brand. ‘We don’t sell...’ did not sit comfortably with W. H.

Smith’s lasting qualities of Victorian honesty and reliability, nor did

it encourage discretionary visits to the store.

BBH’s next offering, based on the gentler line, ‘there’s more to life

with W. H. Smith’, -- broke in 1993. While probably more appropriate

strategically, the campaign had little of the pizzazz of the agency

behind it.

By 1994, the relationship between BBH and its only mass-market retail

client had clearly worsened. Simultaneously, the W. H. Smith marketing

chief, Dean Cowley, who had been with the group for more than ten years,

was forced out in July following a restructure when marketing was

divided into products and brands.

Cowley’s replacement, Esther Horwood, the general manager for brand

marketing, left at the start of 1995. In the meantime, W. H. Smith

parted company with BBH, only to reappoint the agency a few months

later. Then Don Sloan, the former Woolworths marketing director, was

recruited as head of brand marketing to replace Horwood at W. H. Smith.

It is Sloan’s job to implement ‘operation enliven’, the aptly named

project now underway that will see a marketing-led revamp of W. H. Smith

stores, with more guidance in areas such as multimedia and a claimed

boost in adspend up to pounds 14 million. (The real spend figure is

lower than this, with much of the money coming direct from suppliers.)

So to the present, and BBH’s final creative fallout with W. H. Smith

while Motive, its media affiliate, keeps the media spend. The tiff

centred on BBH’s belief that it had found the right advertising solution

for operation enliven, while the client disagreed. This time no-one

expects a reappointment.

But does retail advertising always have to be this difficult?

Observers cite the success of Woolworths, which has also faced attacks

on its key categories from food retailers, toy superstores and smaller

music specialists.

‘Woolworths realised that because people did not have to visit its

stores, it had to communicate its offering as environment plus value,’

Carol Butler, the Bates Dorland group account director in charge of the

agency’s pounds 20 million Woolworths business, says. ‘That strategy

peaked in the 70s with the ‘that’s the wonder of Woolworths’ line and

our ownership of the back-to-school theme.’

In recent ads, culminating in the celebratory ‘Winter Wonderland’

Christmas campaign, Woolworths has pulled together all aspects of its

offering. Alan McWalter, the retailer’s marketing director, says: ‘When

we re-introduced long time-frame ads and bought up whole breaks as a

policy last Christmas, we knew the advertising strategy had a confidence

and authenticity for our customers.’

W. H. Smith has repeatedly told a sceptical City that it will market its

way out of its wilderness. So, like Woolworths, it cares about

advertising. But the success of that strategy will depend on whether it

can find an agency to offer both the essentials - merchandising ads for

products and the ability to build a strong brand once again.