So here I am in my new slot, wondering what to write about and
suffering the post-Christmas blues. Mind you, my blues are but small
ones compared with those of the retailers.
You can tell they’ve had a bad time by the fact that so many of the big
chains started their sales before Christmas rather than allowing a
decent interval (say ’till 27 December) to whip up a second consumer
Because Christmas is so important to the retailers (for many of them it
accounts for up to a third of their sales), I expect that the next few
weeks will see the search for the guilty begin - with the inevitable
result that, as the buck is passed from the buyers to the sales
departments to marketing, more than a few agencies will find themselves
in the firing line.
From the retailers’ point of view, you can hardly blame them. After all,
working for a retailer at this time of year is the quintessential test
for advertising. You do the ad, put it out and either sales go up or
they don’t. Bollocks to all this awareness and brand-equity stuff that
agencies are so fond of spouting.
That is one view. The other is that so long as they retain their basic
antipathy to advertising and marketing, retailers have only got
themselves to blame if things don’t go right at Christmas - or, indeed,
at other crucial times. The root cause of this, I suspect, is in
retailers’ own culture, which means that they fail to do anything other
than pay lip-service to marketing (with the notable exception of
organisations like Tesco). Sure, they bang on about customer care and
cloak themselves in the Christmas spirit of goodwill to all mankind,
even those without credit cards, but it doesn’t ring true. But then
that’s hardly surprising when they employ people who, in their own
lingo, refer to Christmas as period 12.
This numbers-driven, depersonalised attitude - in which unloading the
stock is the be-all and end-all - is deeply entrenched, even at the very
top of organisations where you would be surprised to find it.
Earlier this year Campaign ran a story that M&S was talking to
McCann-Erickson about a television campaign. Boy, did the big cheeses at
Marks & Spencer get cross. Practically bursting with indignation, the
M&S chairman, Sir Richard Greenbury, personally protested - the sub-text
of his letter being that it was a waste of time and money and it was an
insult to M&S shareholders and staff to suggest the company was even
thinking of advertising. It was an attitude that reminded me of my
grandmother, who used to think that there was something dodgy about any
company that needed to advertise.
At the time I thought Greenbury protested too much, so it was no
surprise to see an M&S television ad running in the couple of weeks
before Christmas. It was quite good, too, although that may be to damn
it with faint praise. Still, the arrival of M&S as a serious advertiser,
coupled with that of Waitrose (another advertiser) later this year, may
spur other retailers on to take marketing seriously. But if they do,
let’s hope they don’t just dip in and out. To borrow an old saying,
advertising is for life, not just for Christmas.