Innocent stands its ground amid pitch criticism

LONDON - Smoothies giant defends decision to keep the creative task in-house, though it won't have curried favours.

Richard Reed...defends decision
Richard Reed...defends decision

Of all the accusations thrown at Richard Reed, the co-founder of Innocent Drinks, as a result of his company's unconventional approach to pitches, it's the allegation of unethical behaviour that rankles him the most.

"It's totally unfair for us to be pilloried in the way we have been," he protests.

That Reed's actions have seen him singled out for pariah status is remarkable for two reasons.

One, is that he used to be one of adland's own. Indeed, one of his contemporaries at what is now DDB London, where Reed spent three years as an account man on the VW business in the mid-90s, believes he would have been a strong candidate for chief executive had he continued on the ?agency side of the fence.

The other is that Innocent's entire premise is founded on behaving in a principled way. "Richard really wants to improve people's lives," Chris Cowpe, the former DDB London chief executive, says.

Although many may have trouble believing this, after the furore he created with Innocent's recent shortlisting of three agencies to pitch for his business before opting to give it to his in-house creative department.

This is something of  which he has a past history. In 2007, he called a pitch, but then cancelled it to stick with Lowe.

However, Reed cannot understand what the fuss is about. The competing agencies - 4Creative, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R and The Brooklyn Brothers - were told at the outset that they were pitching for a one-off project, and that Innocent's in-house creative department would be taking part, he says.

Agencies in the contest are said not to dispute this, although some, which obviously want to remain nameless, claim they were left with the impression that a winning presentation might pave the way to more business.

"It's hard to believe that Innocent was ever going to appoint an external partner," an agency source says.

"I can't help feeling that the carrot dangled in front of us was also the stick with which to beat the in-house creatives."

Reed admits that Innocent will never be every agency's cup of tea - and certainly it is not for those that see themselves as a client's long-term partner.

However, agencies that have worked with Innocent - and been dumped by it - display no rancour towards Reed.

"He is a dream to work with," a former senior manager at a one-time Innocent roster agency says. "But Innocent is a chaotic place that doesn't do things by the book."

Sources say this was especially evident during Innocent's time as a Lowe client. "There were massive creative tensions," an insider acknowledges.

Some suggest that the tangled advertising arrangements are part of the growing pains of a company that now claims a 71 per cent share of the £169 million UK smoothies market.

As a result, Reed's role has become - in the words of one insider - more "presidential", with the marketing function spread across a team of generally young and less experienced executives.

At the same time, onlookers detect a dilemma at the heart of the company. "What's happened is symptomatic of a brand at a crossroads," one says.

"There's a danger that its charm becomes arrogance."

One theory is that Reed's reluctance to go outside of its in-house team stems from the influence of Dan Germain, Innocent's head of creative and the keeper of its culture.

"Germain is a cool customer, but you need to be a collaborative creative director if you're going to work with him," an industry source says.

In the end, it may be the PepsiCo factor that will shape the future course of Innocent's marketing. Earlier this year, the global drinks giant pledged to rival Innocent's leadership of the smoothies market in Britain with the launch of a range under the Tropicana name.

Should this lead to another pitch, some believe recent events may return to haunt Innocent. "It doesn't really matter whether or not Innocent got it right," an agency boss who has dealt with the company says.

"The fact is that it will have to work very hard to be taken seriously again."

For the record

CAMPAIGN You’ve acquired the reputation of being a rogue client. Do you think it's justified?

RICHARD REED We're not perfect, but we've learned from our mistakes. I come from the ad industry, which means I've a huge respect for agencies, and it's very important to us that we do business with them in an open and responsible manner. We made it absolutely clear to agencies taking part in the pitch that this was a one-off brief for a January project, that our internal team would be taking part and that we would go with the best idea presented to us.

C Why would you not let your in-house creative department try to crack the brief before putting it up for pitch?

RR We're a small company operating within a big business world. We have to get better results than our competitors, so we needed more than one horse in the race. We briefed our internal guys because we wanted some internal competition. They knew they'd have to do their best work to win.

C Does Innocent's entrepreneurial culture make it unsuited to working with agencies?

RR It's harder for us to work with agencies than it is for a lot of other clients. We never advertised for the first five years of our existence. For us, it's not all about the TV commercial and, because of the spikes in demand for our products, we tend to favour project work. We know we're not going to be right for everybody and if an agency doesn't want to opt in, that's fine.

C It's suggested your perception problems stem from devolving responsibilities to a mainly young and inexperienced marketing team. Should you be taking a more hands-on role?

RR We have a young team because we, ourselves, are a pretty young business. We have weekly creative review sessions and I remain intimately involved in the running of the business.

C Some say you may be mistrustful of agencies because of some of the dubious practices that went on during your time in the business. Is that the case?

RR I trust agencies, I believe they're professionally run and I think there are some awesome people working in them. But they still have to address the question of how they charge and what they charge for.

C Is the real problem that you see Innocent as your creation, and can't bring yourself to hand any responsibility to an outsider?

RR We've always used ideas from other people and we have to be porous if we're going to keep our brand fresh and moving forward. We're just very clear with agencies about what we want, which means we're likely to say "no" more often than we say "yes".

C You're under increasing pressure from PepsiCo. Won't that mean you'll have to appoint an agency sooner or later?

RR You can never say never. The most important thing is that we get the best ideas, remain innovative and proactive, and do things in more dynamic ways. We don't necessarily have to fight the competition with the same weapons. Apple is an outstanding example of a company that has an in-house creative department but still works with agencies. I think there is a lot to be learned from that.

C If you ever call a pitch again, how will you convince agencies that they won't be wasting their time?

RR They can be assured that we'll be open and transparent, and that if we use work we'll pay for it. There's nothing more precious in business than time. We won't waste ours - or other people's.