LIVE ISSUE/RETAIL ADVERTISING: Why agencies make hard work of retail accounts - Agencies have a close but complex relationship with retailers, John Owen says

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO can do it. Bates Dorland can do it. Publicis can do it. But, history tells us, Bartle Bogle Hegarty can’t do it.

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO can do it. Bates Dorland can do it.

Publicis can do it. But, history tells us, Bartle Bogle Hegarty can’t do


According to conventional wisdom, retail advertising is different.

People who work on retail accounts are not really advertising people at


They always wear socks with their shoes, carry mobile phones for

strictly functional purposes and are rarely seen lunching at the


For Rick Bendel, chairman of Publicis and also the head of the agency’s

Asda and MFI accounts, the ideal retail account man is ’not somebody

who’s into the advertising, but somebody who’s interested in the


In fact, what Bendel calls ’interest’ borders on indefatigable

obsession. ’The best retail ad agencies meet with the head of the retail

organisation at least once a week, usually at 11pm, anywhere in the

country. When you get into this business, you’ve got to realise you’re

in it morning, noon and night.’

The people making this commitment, moreover, must be the top people at

the agency. It isn’t marketing directors who make the key marketing

decisions in retail, it’s the chairmen. And they demand attention from

their opposite numbers. ’They pick up the telephone, and you go,’ Bendel


There are many other factors that make the retail sector unique - the

constant need for out-put, the time pressures, the narrow creative

confines, the accountability. In short, it’s systems-driven, rather than

ideas driven.

It may not be sexy, but the rewards for those agencies that crack it are

considerable, not least among them client loyalty - higher, Bendel says,

than in other sectors. Retail accounts don’t move very often for two

reasons, he believes: ’The agency team is absolutely entwined in the

infrastructure of the business and there aren’t many agencies that know

how to do it.’

It can’t have been easy, then, for Bendel when Publicis lost the pounds

10 million Halfords account (Campaign, last week). ’I hope it stays with

Abbott Mead for a long time,’ he says, somewhat pointedly. ’It needs


Publicis had handled the business for only three years. It had

previously spent just two years at WCRS, and before that four with CME

KHBB, which nevertheless lost a part of the business three years into

its reign in 1992. For the retail purist, this level of promiscuity is


As usual, the explanation lies within the client company, whose troubled

financial performance is well documented. But now Halfords is trying

something new - a more emotional, brand-building approach to


David Patten, Halfords’ head of marketing, is clear about what he’s

looking for. ’The delicate balance between tactical advertising and

long-term brand building is a difficult area,’ he comments. ’Both are

necessary to achieve different objectives, but one can be damaging to

the overall brand, while the other attempts to build it. Good

advertising agencies need to display the ability to do both.’

Abbott Mead’s track record is pretty impressive in this regard - indeed,

it might be argued that its Sainsbury’s press work of the late 70s and

80s created the very idea that brand building could go hand-in-hand with

the black-and-white tactical ads of old. But, for retail veterans, most

agencies are still too hooked on the former and unenthusiastic towards

the latter to handle retail accounts well.

Nearly all of them point to BBH as the prime example. Two high-profile

splits - with Asda in 1989 and W. H. Smith in 1996 - have won this most

decorated of agencies this least wanted of reputations. But Martin

Smith, BBH’s managing director, refutes the charge. ’What always happens

with retail accounts is that there’s warfare between marketing and

operations (or sales),’ he says by way of explanation. ’Some retail

organisations are better than others at managing that conflict. But

there’s very little an agency can do except get caught in the


Smith accepts that agencies working for retailers have to take account

of both sets of requirements and BBH, he declares, is ready to do so


Some of the biggest retailers still make scant use of brand


Look at Dixons, for example, which last week shifted its pounds 108

million media buying account into Walker Media. In many ways, the move

is a reward for the efforts of Michael Kaye and his account team at

Dixons’ creative agency, M&C Saatchi, which has a 50 per cent stake in

Walker Media. But Dixons’ almost total emphasis on tactical press work

finds few fans elsewhere in the industry. One agency boss says: ’It

doesn’t appear to have learned anything from the brand successes of

retail organisations in the 80s and 90s.’

As Halfords prepares to embark on its own brand-building adventure,

however, the feeling is that the tide is continuing to turn, that the

gap between retail and the rest is growing ever narrower - a

rapprochement also helped by the fact that non-retail clients are

demanding more accountability and faster turnaround. So it may not be

long before everyone sides with Adrian Vickers, Abbott Mead’s deputy

chairman, when he says: ’There isn’t a huge distinction between what

retail clients need and what non-retail clients need. They require

thinking that embraces brand building, strategic development, the

ability to react fast and deal with detailed briefs. It’s a question of

degree, not kind.’