Opinion Beale on... DFS

'Tis the time of year for a jolly romp through the highs and lows of the past 12 months. For the highs, see Campaign's Agency of the Year issue next week. But, dear reader, I'm afraid there were some lows. Usefully, many of them are summed up by two words: Linda Barker. OK, Michael and Winner are both close runners-up, but this was definitely Barker's year.

As the fairy atop our 2003 poo pile, Barker has done more service for the ad industry this year than an Ivy waiter. Oh, how her multiple endorsement deals (proof of a shrewd agent and far too many crazy, lazy ad agencies) have lit up our ad breaks - every bloody ad break - and not just once, often twice. Snipping her lovely fingers, bobbing her lovely curls for Currys. Why, there she is again, kicking up her lovely heels on a mustard leatherette sofa. Pity the poor media buyers who have tried to keep all the Barkers away from each other.

Now, when M&C Saatchi signed Barker for Currys back in the summer (after she didn't win I'm A Celebrity, you'll remember), they said she'd been chosen because she was a "high-profile, popular figure associated with style and good homes" (clearly an agency for whom "Changing Rooms" are simply the little cubicles in Harvey Nicks). Certainly by now the frequent appearances of Barker on cheap DFS leather will have put paid to any association with style. For Currys, Barker (wearing more make-up than a drag queen) seems neither appropriate nor believable.

Now DFS is, of course, responsible for some of the worst advertising (to delicate creative senses) - remember those execrable ads that tried to link DFS sofas with kinky sex, all stilettoes and handcuffs and whipped cream? Priceless. But from the vantage point of my Conran settee, DFS seems to have scored rather better with Barker. I sniff a strategy.

I reckon DFS orders its ads as it orders its stock; in come a new batch of reclining sofas (so vintage Friends) and a new pricing strategy, in comes a production line ad to match. And, let's be frank, if you're selling sofas to people who want to buy cheap sofas, pretty much all you need to tell them is that you sell sofas, you sell cheap sofas, and you sell sofas that our moms will "ooo nice" at. Job done.

Trouble is, there are rather a lot of places now selling cheap sofas (and don't we Brits like anything if it's cheap). DFS is already top dog in the upholstered furniture sector. But when the company unveiled a better-than- expected trading statement this week, its COO Jon Massey blew the froth off, warning of lots of new heavyweight competition in the sector from the likes of Argos, Homebase, MFI and Marks & Spencer (which is planning its own furniture store).

Still, it's a growing market that DFS has sent Barker in to fight for, with the furniture sector forecast to grow by more than 5 per cent by 2007 to £10.1 billion. But with more companies muscling in, with their own nasty commercials to promote their own nasty sofas, DFS needed to create more stand-out; sometimes it's hard to tell one nasty sofa ad from another nasty sofa ad.

Enter Barker (who also has her own range of DFS sofas, clever girl).

So now DFS has some consistency to its production-line ads, and a little bit of personality, too. It's still godawful advertising, but I bet it works. Now whenever you see a nasty sofa ad and it's got Linda Barker in it, you know it's for DFS, right. Unless it's for Currys.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Yep, she'll probably be advertising those next.

Offers anyone?

File under ... O for over-paid, over-exposed opportunist.

What would the chairman's wife say? "What a nice, down-to-earth northern

girl, just like one of them, darling."

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