Is M&S right to drop its clothing and home Christmas TV campaign?

It's a bold move for one of UK's biggest retailers.

M&S: Odd made Christmas 2019 spot
M&S: Odd made Christmas 2019 spot

Marks & Spencer’s advertising journey is never boring, that’s for sure. It was the brand that invented the “sexy female talks over shots of sexy food accompanied by sexy music” thing. Last year, the retailer decided to split its creative business into food and clothing (including home), later appointing Odd London to handle the latter while incumbent Grey London retained the food brief.

And now in this rather, erm, odd climate, and with the most important retail period of the year coming up, M&S has decided to forgo a festive TV campaign for clothing and home. It’s a shame for Odd, which made some joyous ads for the brand last year, starting with the Jump Around-soundtracked “Go jumpers”, with its shoulder-roll dance motif.

Speaking on a call to journalists this morning as M&S revealed its half-year results, chief executive Steve Rowe said he didn't think it was "right" to run big multimillion-pound campaigns on TV this year and that the divison would instead focus spend on search, YouTube and Instagram.

M&S’s decision has raised some eyebrows. It could certainly come across as tone-deaf to make an extravagant blockbuster like in Christmas past considering the year we’re having. At the same time, no-one wants another ad of desolate streets.

But it’s clearly not a view that every brand shares. Now that Halloween is out of the way, some retailers have already released their seasonal offerings – Very, Pepsi Max, Argos, TK Maxx and Amazon all unveiled ads over the weekend. Christmas isn’t cancelled, after all, and people still need to buy presents.

Meanwhile, with another England lockdown looming, and some level of restriction expected to remain in place for some time for the whole of the UK, it’s a possibility that some brands might hold off on marketing spend altogether. Coca-Cola, for example, suspended advertising in April during the first lockdown.

John Lewis Partnership has taken yet another approach to navigate these choppy waters. Its Christmas spot is arguably the most anticipated each year and for 2020 the brand has said that it will turn its attention to a major charity appeal, suggesting that the tone of the campaign will be rather different to before.

All that being said, M&S’s food arm has always performed reasonably well, while its clothing and home division has been struggling for some time. And if the brand believes in the power of advertising – indeed, it is still splurging on a festive food campaign – can it not be argued that it needs a big TV ad for clothing and home more than ever? M&S itself told Campaign at the start of this year that the 2019 work helped to lift sales of jumpers.

So did M&S make the right decision to drop the 2020 campaign?

Craig Inglis

Chairman, The Marketing Society and former customer director, John Lewis & Partners

I don't have the full context for this decision but, like all retailers, I'm sure it's extremely challenging inside M&S right now and that this won't be a decision they'll have taken lightly.

If they've made the decision to preserve cash in the short term, I think that's understandable. But, personally, I think it's the wrong call. There are decades of evidence that shows brands that continue to invest during tough times will increase share of voice, ROI and market share. M&S are in danger of putting that at risk at the very time when their clothing business needs it most.

On a human level, I love M&S. It's an iconic British brand with a long history of great Christmas campaigns. The nation really needs some joy this Christmas and it would be great to see M&S back themselves with a confident, positive message. Fingers crossed the food campaign is a belter!

Vicki Maguire

Chief creative officer, Havas London

In the summer, when Marks & Spencer said it was "hibernating" some styles until 2021, I thought there goes any fashion credentials they had. As the king of comfy cosies – go-to for matchy-matchy family PJs and Crimbo jumpers – I thought they'd outperform those selling sequins and glitzy belts masquerading as skirts.

Last year's Odd work was quirky and hard-working, and could have been rerun – the PJ one, especially, as that's my partywear this year. Or maybe they should have collaborated more closely with M&S Food, bundling PJs, parsnips and Prosecco for delivery by Ocado. Just a thought.

Dino Myers-Lamptey

Founder, The Barber Shop

M&S's decision is a troubling one. The current climate demands that brands aggressively shift to digital commerce and digital consumers need to be reassured of the M&S offering. More troubling is that they know advertising works to generate demand, as they reported last year's campaign generated sales increases of 6-10% on the products advertised.

Yes, like many businesses, they have been hugely impacted by the pandemic. However, larger brands must not just consider the cost of advertising, but the cost of not advertising. Consumer behaviours and expectations are changing, so effectively communicating your relevance has never been more important.

James Murphy

Co-founder, New Commercial Arts

You can't blame M&S for fishing where the fish are. A radical shift of emphasis to focus on food and less traditional channels plays to their strength during a crucial trading period and builds momentum around their Ocado partnership. Their food offering has been crucial in recent Christmas seasons, delivering sales, margin and – crucially – footfall.

Food was a lever that got shoppers in the door and, as they moved to the food hall (often at the back of the store), they might pause to browse the general merchandise, pick up some stocking fillers and perhaps some clobber for the party season.

Cut to 2020 and Lockdown Mk2 has rendered clothes shopping and partying non-essential and perhaps even illegal. Luckily, we can still forage M&S for pigs in blankets.

James Hankins

Commercial strategist

My immediate response was that this was the wrong decision. However, upon review, I've changed my mind.

The general merchandise business is still predicted to be worth an estimated £1.7bn this year (down circa 40% year on year). GM also still operates to a significantly higher operating margin versus food (7% versus 3.9%). Therefore, any food campaign has to work nearly twice as hard to generate the same amount of profit as the GM (all else being equal).

That said, working to a simple in-year 10% GM uplift (based on published historic performance) against a Covid-depressed third quarter of circa £750m revenue (down 32% year on year) would deliver incremental profit of roughly £5.9m versus a campaign outlay of £7m-plus. In that light, the spend is probably not justified.

Combined with M&S's seemingly eternal availability issues and with limited resources to create two blockbuster Christmas ads, I'd now agree it's the right commercial decision.

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