Close-Up: Live issue - Will Asda win change Fallon's culture?

How will a sprawling retail account marry with Fallon's creative focus, Noel Bussey asks.

Last week, Fallon picked up the £44 million creative account for Asda, in what must be a dream start to the year.

The appointment is also a strong indication by the retailer that it is serious about turning its creative offering around - something an agency of Fallon's creative pedigree should be more than capable of achieving.

The supermarket business has been struggling recently, not only with its brand proposition, but also with its sales. In 2006, its revenues grew by just 3.1 per cent, compared with 19.8 per cent in 2005.

Recently, though, there was some good news. In the two weeks leading up to 31 December, Asda - along with Tesco - outperformed the market in sales, sparking hopes of a turnaround in 2007.

Instead of feeling the pressure these figures will no doubt place on Asda's advertising, the ever-confident Fallon founding partner Robert Senior sees this as a chance for the agency to prove itself.

"It's always been our ambition to marry our creative with bigger and tougher tasks," he says.

Despite this confidence, similarities are still being drawn with Bartle Bogle Hegarty's tenure of the Asda business in the 80s, which ended abruptly with BBH resigning the account owing to a clash of cultures.

But Paul Hammersley, the chief executive of The Red Brick Road, believes the retail market has changed so much since then that the problems BBH faced are totally different to the relationship Fallon will be forming.

"Cultural mismatch is such an old-fashioned phrase, it has no relevance to this appointment," he argues. "BBH would have struggled to get the work out, but technology has changed so much now, you don't have to be a behemoth agency to handle big retail business."

Fallon will also benefit from another huge development that has taken place in retail advertising over the past 17 years - it is now no longer the ugly sister that needs to be hidden away in the agency basement. Tesco and Marks & Spencer have shown that the work can be both creative and effective.

James Murphy, the chief executive of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, says: "That's not to say retail is the new rock 'n' roll, but handled correctly, they can become the flagship accounts of good agencies. However, an agency can't afford to 'ghettoise' these accounts; everything has to be created under one brand idea."

There are caveats. Some industry figures predict Fallon may struggle with the practicalities of such a huge account, including the staff and resources to handle the work.

"It will have to hire a lot people to handle that amount of work. Such an influx of new people in such quick succession can lead to an attitude change," an agency chief with retail experience says.

Senior is adamant this won't happen. "It will not change the culture of our agency," he says. "We handle big accounts already, which all require fast turnaround work."

He also brushes off the task of finding the staff to create this new pile of work - and the possible implications of the Tupe rules.

"Once we have seen the scope of the account, we'll hire accordingly. We'll deal with Tupe if and when we come to it," says Senior.

This is echoed by Rick Bendel, the Asda marketing director who made the appointment: "For Fallon, this is a defining moment. It's a time for it to become a grown-up."

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M&S AGENCY CHIEF - James Murphy, chief executive, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"This appointment seems to be the beginning of a new era for Fallon. It has picked up a client that may not be seen as a natural fit, but has the chance to do amazing work and cement its reputation.

"Retail accounts are now no longer what they used to be - big money, but slightly shunned. They are now big, important clients. But Fallon will have to make sure it does not 'ghettoise' the account, which can happen quite easily.

"I think a major factor will also be the Tupe regulations; if Fallon takes a bunch of people who do not fit the Fallon ethic, it could prove very disruptive."

TESCO AGENCY CHIEF - Paul Hammersley, chief executive, The Red Brick Road

"There's a practical side to running this sort of business that is very demanding and functional.

"There will need to be a slight attitude adjustment, because retail is such a reactionary business. For instance, planning can go out of the window in a second if work needs to get out.

"What Fallon can't do is compartmentalise things, and it needs to get its head around the realities of the business as soon as possible.

"However, it would seem that the agency has the wherewithal to handle that, as well as creating that big idea."

ASDA AGENCY CHIEF - Robert Senior, founding partner, Fallon

"I don't think we're going to have to re-engineer the agency - it'll be business as usual. It will be a big test, but the size and nature of the account will not daunt us.

"We choose our partners carefully and we have the same vision as the guys at Asda. Fallon has a clear proposition to provide the best creative for all of its clients. Just because Asda is a huge retail business, doesn't mean it should be exempt from good creative; Rick (Bendel) agrees with this.

"Asda is at a junction where there is an enormous opportunity for us to help it reassert itself. The organisation needs an idea that will galvanise both the business and the employees."

CLIENT - Rick Bendel, marketing director, Asda

"Normally, with a pitch of this scale, you would go through the AAR. But having worked in the agency business for 30 years, Asda was willing to listen to my advice.

"I chose Fallon because I have a lot of respect for Robert (Senior) and his team.

"In the pitch, Fallon came up with a brilliant idea which everybody, including Wal-Mart in the US, is very excited about.

"The agency will take over the business in March, and the new work should be out by late spring.

"I felt it was important to stay in Publicis Groupe, even though I wasn't compelled to do so. This isn't a decision I've taken lightly."