'I was offered the job 16 years ago,' says Bendel, who has been wedded to the Asda business since the early 90s, when he worked on its ad account at Publicis. 'That is when my love affair with the company began.'
Back then, Bendel acted as a surrogate marketing director for Asda chief executives Archie Norman and Allan Leighton, who worked to revitalise the ailing retailer prior to its 1999 Wal-Mart takeover. Their efforts paid off, and by 2003 the least glamorous of the big four supermarkets had overtaken Sainsbury's as the UK's second biggest chain.
Bendel is credited for much of the activity that led to Asda's turnaround. 'We turned everything on its head back then,' he says. 'When I started as marketing director, it felt as though I was joining a company I created.'
He has wasted no time in making his mark on the company for a second time following his appointment in October 2006 by chief executive Andy Bond. Two months after joining, he shifted Asda's ad account out of Publicis to sibling agency Fallon, sending shock waves through the ad industry and raising questions about his relationship with his previous employer.
'Whether people think I'm the butcher of Leeds or the visionary of the world, I did it because it was the right thing for the brand,' he says, adding that he had no direct involvement with the Asda ad business for four years prior to leaving Publicis, as his duties as worldwide chief operating officer took him away from the day-to-day running of the account.
Bendel was keen to move away from the pocket-slapping, change-jangling mnemonic created by Publicis. The much-anticipated 'There's no place like Asda' campaign that followed, featuring well-loved celebrities, including football pundit Ian Wright, working in the supermarket, made a refreshing change. It set out to 'make the stores the hero' and position the supermarket as a common-sense alternative to 'elitist' rivals such as Marks & Spencer.
Bendel, who spends 50% of his working time in-store, has returned Asda to its price-focused roots this year, with ads that use mySupermarket.com to compare its prices with Tesco's. Future work will focus on quality and innovation, as well as value. 'I want to get rid of the badge nonsense in supermarkets,' says Bendel.
There will be a fresh face for George, too, following Coleen McLoughlin's dismissal, as the brand repositions to target a core 30-plus customer base. The company is also launching a 'Green Rollbacks' scheme, which pledges to put money saved from its reduced product packaging toward keeping prices down.
Bendel started work in advertising at 17, and enjoyed a meteoric rise. At 19, he became a strategic planner at BMP, before joining Geers Gross, becoming chief executive aged 27, and chairman at 31. He led the agency's merger with Publicis UK, and rose to chief operating officer of Publicis Worldwide. 'It was a tremendous learning curve, but I felt increasingly distant from clients,' says Bendel. He also found being based in Paris hard, as he was only able to see his wife and two teenage children for four weekends a year.
During one of these weekends, he spotted a picture of one his children in the local paper; they had won a prize that he knew nothing about. It was this that instigated his decision to quit the ad business and join Asda. 'I'm the happiest I've ever been,' he says. 'I have the best job ever and Chelsea are in the Champions League final.'
Bendel goes on to admit staying out until 4am celebrating his team's semi-final victory with his son. With plans for a multimillion-pound relaunch of the Asda website and significant expansion in the South East of England, he is likely to have more to celebrate this year.
- 1975-1975 Voucher clerk, London Press Exchange
- 1975-1977 Junior media buyer, rising to planner buyer, Leo Burnett
- 1977-1986 Media planner, BMP
- 1986-1991 Media director, rising to chairman, Geers Gross
- 1991-2000 Joint chief executive, rising to chairman, Publicis Groupe UK
- 2000-2002 Regional chairman, UK, Baltic & Nordic countries, to Europe Chief Executive, Publicis
- 2002-2006 Chief operating officer, Publicis Worldwide
- 2006-present Group executive marketing director, Asda