CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER - Hard man White puts Nestle ads into sharp focus

Its new managing director attacks the legacy of Andrew Harrison.

"I don't like any of the ads," Chris White, the new managing director of Nestle Rowntree UK, says. He is referring to the high-profile campaigns created by J. Walter Thompson, Lowe and M&C Saatchi for Nestle's portfolio of confectionery products. "They are focused on awards and not on selling more product to more people at higher prices," he explains.

White talks plainly, with all the confidence of someone who has enjoyed significant business success. He is a change-agent, a global trouble-shooter with a track record of turning struggling businesses around. He has done it numerous times for his previous employer, Coca-Cola: a fruit juice business in Hong Kong; a bottling division in Singapore and Malaysia; general operations in Thailand, Korea and China. He arrived in the UK in December after performing a dramatic turnaround in the business performance of Nestle Australia's ice-cream operation.

White, a New Zealander, is pragmatic. His dialogue is economical, to the point, almost brusque. To some, this makes him refreshingly likeable.

His no-bullshit approach is welcome in a world of veiled comments. As one source put it: "He challenges everything: there are no sacred cows."

That said, he refuses to comment directly on what he thinks of the ad strategy adopted by Andrew Harrison, the former UK marketing director, who left to join Muller soon after White arrived. But he makes his views clear when he assesses the performance of the company under Harrison.

"The business performance over the past few years has gone steadily downhill. A lot of it has been attributed to the advertising that really hasn't worked. We have lost more market share in the past few years than in almost the entire history of the company."

According to White, Nestle Rowntree has a 17.9 per cent market share, compared with its nearest rival Mars on 20 per cent and the market leader Cadbury on 28 per cent. This is a slip from a 21 per cent share four years ago. His job is to halt that slide and reverse the trend.

White has been parachuted in to implement a new strategy. Much of his time will be spent dealing with operational and structural changes. He has brought in a fellow Antipodean, the Australian Sam Hunter (they worked together for a time at Coca-Cola) as the interim UK marketing director to implement his strategy in the short term.

The job of whipping JWT and Lowe into shape (M&C Saatchi was unceremoniously dumped from the roster last week) has been handed to the former Lowe board account director Mike O'Reilly - also an old Coca-Cola hand - who joins this week as the consumer communications director.

"Mike has real power," White says. "He will be the guy to take the brief and strategy from the brand group and develop it with agencies. They will have to work with him and sell it to him. We created the position because we wanted a single focus for the advertising. Before, we did it through several brand groups that have given us ads that haven't worked."

Harrison's and White's approaches to marketing are chalk and cheese.

Harrison was a big believer in creativity and ads that spoke about the overarching brand. White is all about product-led advertising. It was Harrison who went for the emotional advertising for Kit Kat - featuring the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels actor Jason Statham talking about salmon spawning. He also bought the Double Cream launch campaign, which featured a pair of lovers trying to escape from the law after robbing a bank.

Both campaigns have now been axed and the company is developing new routes.

Advertising sources have described the new hired gun as "abrasive" and "vicious" in his lack of reverence for Harrison's approach and his treatment of the agencies. Clearly, White isn't here to make friends.

"I want a new strategy. The first step is to create ads that get people to re-establish a relationship with a brand - for example, Kit Kat. I want to know what makes it different, and therefore better than competitors' products, to make people buy it. Is it the snapping sound it makes like a pencil when you break a stick off? Is it because it is social? That you can play with it?"

His strategy, according to one former Lowe source, is bedded in "getting back to the truth and heart of the products. Product-led is benefit-led. That means less esoteric ads".

White believes in using a very limited roster: "The honest answer is I don't have any choice on the roster. The only choice I have is whether JWT or Lowe handles the work. I don't necessarily think rosters are the best, but you have to work with the system."

Despite rubbishing the advertising that has been produced so far, White has faith in his now two-strong roster. "I don't see any problem at JWT or Lowe that leads me to think it cannot work. There have been changes on the people front and, now, I think the teams are good," he says.

M&C Saatchi, appointed in 2001 to launch Allstars and more recently behind the "Choc Idol" idents for Pop Idol, has been dropped from any future work for Nestle. The creative made the chocolate bars come to life as animated characters that danced and sang. White is scathing in his verdict.

"M&C Saatchi was brought in specifically for Pop Idol. It didn't work. Sales didn't increase. Consumers didn't form a better relationship with the brand. I don't blame Pop Idol for that. Stick-insect things dancing around the screen in wrappers didn't activate consumers."

In fact, M&C Saatchi 's ads were not meant to be about sales. The fact that the ads were not leveraged enough at the point of sale doesn't sit well with White. As one source put it: "He is much more commercial than Harrison, it is about driving the business. Great change is always painful."

White is clear where Nestle must go from here. No umbrella or overarching brand advertising. "We don't have an awareness problem, people know Nestle and our brands, such as Kit Kat and Aero," he says. The plan is to back fewer brands with bigger spends that can support them properly.

"We had something like ten brands on television last year. There isn't enough money to go around, so no-one sees them. There will be a series of priority brands with significant investment and secondary brands where we need to be more clever about how we market. Television isn't always the best option."

He added that the company would also look to experiment with new products, flavours and variants.

Some are worried about Nestle so plainly ditching its creative heritage. "It would be a shame if Nestle sacrificed creativity for more results-driven strategy out of short-term pragmatism," one source says.

White, however, is not about to throw the baby out with the bath water.

He has left room for agencies to manoeuvre on the creative front. "It is not about brand or product ads exclusively, it is about both," he says.

His agencies just have to prove that both approaches are capable of measuring up to White's ultimate yardstick of success - delivering sales.


Age: 42

Lives: Harrogate

Family: Wife, two kids this marriage, two kids last marriage

Favourite ad: At the moment, the Peugeot ad set in India

Describe yourself in three words: Simple and direct

Greatest extravagance: My children

Most treasured possession: My children and Rick Parfitt's guitar

Most admired agency: Mojo

Living person you most admire: Mao Tse-tung, but he is dead

One to watch: Queenstown, NZ

Motto: Sell more stuff to more people more often at higher prices so we

can make more money more efficiently (stolen from the marketing guru

Sergio Zyman)

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