My phone rings last Thursday afternoon. It’s a financial journalist
on one of the national broadsheets. ’M&S has just appointed some bloke
from Woolies called Alan McWalter as marketing director,’ they tell me,
’and the share price (which had been falling all week anyway) is still
falling. So who is this McWalter person then?’
While one wouldn’t necessarily expect the City to know who McWalter is,
the kneejerk reaction - and the falling share price - says more to me
about the City than it does about McWalter. City analysts clearly
haven’t been to Woolworths recently.
Apparently, and I kid you not, the City in its infinite wisdom had been
expecting Marks & Spencer to hire someone from Gap or some other whizzy
retailer. This, when you think about it, is not only naive but also a
bit frightening - because it shows how wide a gulf of understanding
there is in the City when it comes to marketing. A comment in The Times
last Friday underlines the point: ’The realisation that (McWalter) is
not even some young superstar but the middle-aged marketing director of
Woolworths fails to excite. His reign at Woolworths is hardly redolent
of the cutting edge of marketing,’ it thundered as only a newspaper
unburdened by knowledge can.
Even if you agree with The Times’s argument (which I don’t), that is to
miss the point. M&S may need cutting-edge marketing (which I suspect The
Times defines as fcuk or a load of cord-clad Gap models singing Mellow
Yellow) at some point in the future, but what it needs first is some
marketing fundamentals. Someone with experience of large-scale,
multi-faceted retailing is more likely to do that than someone from a
niche operator like Gap.
Moreover, a man who has presided over Woolies marketing in its long
journey from a fuzzy and slightly downmarket outfit to a tightly focused
retailer is much more likely to have something to offer M&S. Despite the
differences between the two, there are a number of parallels between the
They are both large, predominantly high-street operations with multiple
product ranges. And they are both essentially middle-England brands.
Five years ago Woolies was a dowdy place - as M&S is today. Since then
Woolies has reinvented itself, created a bit of theatre in its stores,
done some excellent advertising, segmented its offering and identified
its target market - which is pretty much what M&S needs to do. Cutting
edge? Hardly. More like a matter of doing the basics well.
The real question, however, is whether McWalter can make his mark on an
introverted culture like M&S’s. The fact that he has been passed over at
least twice for the managing director’s slot at Woolies suggests that
not everybody has faith in him.
A year ago, one would have said he - or anyone for that matter - had
little chance of making an impact at Baker Street. But now M&S knows it
must transform itself from a buying-led organisation into a
marketing-led one. And it knows that outsiders are most likely to bring
about that change.