Editorial: Bendel's gamble is key to Asda's long-term hopes

Rick Bendel confesses that moving the £44 million Asda account out of Publicis, his long-time spiritual home, has left him emotionally drained.

The former Publicis chief operating officer turned Asda marketing chief says he suffered sleepless nights as he wrestled with his dilemma. And there can be little doubt he will have smoked his way through many a Marlboro before phoning Tim Lindsay, the Publicis chief executive, to deliver the fateful news.

It was tough for Bendel. Not only will his decision help to determine if Asda finally lives up to the hype that surrounded its takeover by Wal-Mart, but will almost certainly lead to some of his former staffers losing their jobs.

Bendel insists the momentum for a review had begun several months before he joined. Presumably, though, he could have halted the process had he so wished. Why he didn't, only he knows. Clearly, he wants to make his mark at Asda, and there is much speculation he will move to the top of the Asda tree if he can make the retailer the one Tesco fears the most.

His strategy is risky. Fallon may have come up with a knockout creative idea, but big retail accounts can be hard to absorb if you are an up-and-coming shop with little previous expertise in the sector. For one thing, it is labour-intensive, and for another, it can change the dynamic of an agency - and not always for the better. Moreover, a look back over Asda's route from its origins in the mid-60s in derelict out-of-town sites in the North of England reveals a number of costly wrong turns leading to dead-ends.

More than 40 years on, the news about the Asda account provokes mixed emotions. For Fallon, it is a terrific win, which may well turn out to be a milestone in its evolution.

Meanwhile, it is understandable Publicis should view the loss with a mixture of bitterness and bewilderment. Bendel's claim he had no direct involvement in the Adsa business for more than three years before leaving Publicis (and, by implication, was not responsible for its perceived deterioration) is hard to understand. If this is so, why would Asda chiefs hire somebody often credited with knowing more about the company and its marketing than they do?

Bendel insists he has done what he believes is best for Asda's business. For everybody's sake, let's hope he's right.

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