The high street is high pressure, the sharp end of the marketing business where pragmatism rules and tangible results are needed yesterday. The challenge is to nurture the brand while still coping with the necessity of fast turnaround and product heavy messaging. What's needed are watchable ads that combine selling hard with warming the heart, and it's not hard to get the balance wrong.
This selection of TV ads for WH Smith shows how that tightrope can be walked over a number of years, spanning several campaigns and more than one agency. In "space conquest" (1), I counted at least 20 different products, from records and video games to Barbie and school books, packed into a 30-second commercial. But everything is featured as part of a single storyline that feels pacy and engaging.
As retail outlets become less specialised, you have to manage another balance: between the old and the new. WH Smith has always been known for stationery, magazines and books, but less associated with entertainment.
The "more to discover" execution addresses this (2), again with a range of product references each accompanied by a relevant impression, but culminating with the gratifying and understated line "from the same shop that sells you comics".
Christmas is a key selling time for many retailers, and can make or break the whole year. The trap that's easy to fall into is to think that it's all about shouting loudest about what you have to sell. In truth, the real pleasure in giving presents is the genuine smiles when they are opened.
In "we don't sell ..." (3), the story is all about those "gifts" at which people fake delight while suppressing an inward groan. Instead, what's on sale here is lots of happy Christmases, and all available under one roof.
"Christmas cartoon" is another Christmas execution from another year (4). Here, the focus is on the breadth of products that makes WH Smith the perfect place to go shopping for presents for the whole family. Together with being strong in wrapping paper and cards, there's a good case for claiming to be the best Christmas gift one-stop shop in the UK. And it's all presented again as a charming and involving story.
Finally, there are a couple of ads from the Nicholas Lyndhurst campaign.
I can speak with a bit more inside knowledge about these two, as they were both done at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. Lyndhurst was fantastic to work with for his adaptability and patience. In these two ads, he plays a number of family personalities who all interact and spark off one another.
For a change, neither is about huge ranges: one's a back-to-school promotion (5) and the other is for the Clubcard (6). The strength of Lyndhurst's characters still allows a ton of information to come through without leaving you feeling bombarded.
People of all ages loved this versatile campaign and it appealed to the whole breadth of the WH Smith customer base. It had fantastic recall and was even voted most popular campaign at the National Television Awards.
The decision by the client to discontinue the campaign ultimately led to it parting company with AMV BBDO. But it's fair to say that, in the same way that Lyndhurst played many parts for them, WH Smith played a big part in the history of AMV BBDO.
1. WH SMITH Title: Space conquest Agency: D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles Year: 1986 2. WH SMITH Title: More to discover Agency: D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles Year: 1989 3. WH SMITH Title: We don't sell ... Agency: D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles Year: 1992 4. WH SMITH Title: Christmas cartoon Agency: Bartle Bogle Hegarty Year: 1993 5. STATIONERY Title: Back to school Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Year: 1996 6. CLUBCARD Title: Loyalty card Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Year: 1996