PERSPECTIVE: White insults ignore Nestle's orthodoxy of respect

Since clients are such lovers of labels, I have spent the past few days trying to characterise Chris White, the new managing director of Nestle Rowntree UK.

He's clearly not one of those clients who operates as the agency's pal, the brand manager who finds the environment of an agency much more to his taste than his own modest surroundings. Nor is he the archetypal good client; reasonable, receptive and willing to accept that his agency has skills which his company does not have.

"Blunderboss", as the analysts have dubbed him, is best described as a client thug. He's the bluff, no-nonsense man of the people, too shrewd to be manipulated by those clever dicks from Knightsbridge, and seemingly completely unmoved by the normal professional impetus to deliver his bollockings in private.

The overwhelming sense is that White has been brought in to the UK to shake things up in a business which has been outmanoeuvred by Cadbury Trebor Bassett. But his approach so far has been way out of kilter with Nestle orthodoxy. This is the company which has been famously loyal to its agencies. It once clung to the commission system but has in recent years been testing two models of fee plus performance with quantifiable objectives related to growth, profitability, quality of work, strategic thinking and so on.

Introducing this concept in a Campaign interview two years ago, Nestle's top global marketer, Frank Cella, made it clear that any demands made on its agencies were made in a context of mutual respect. His view was that while Nestle agencies may not have done well in responding to the need for more media-neutral thinking, the blame rested with both client and agency.

Indeed, Cella stressed, the problem is not unique to Nestle. Most FMCG companies are living with brand management structures that go back 50 years or more, and the same structural inertia is true of their ad agencies.

Such loyalty is typical of Nestle. One wonders, therefore, how White's comments have gone down in Nestle's headquarters in Vevey.

Indeed, his comments polarised opinion at Campaign. They make great copy and there is some reverence for his Kiwi candour, so out of kilter with today's PC business climate. But there is little to suggest that his calling a spade a spade is likely to turn into a reciprocal relationship. He has insulted not only his agencies but also his predecessor who is unable to defend himself in public. Should one of his agencies take this as a cue to respond in the same way, will White tolerate argument?

My view is that Blunderboss has made a blunder of Gerald Ratner proportions.

Sales figures for the company's top five brands do indeed confirm that Nestle Rowntree has lost market share. But to suggest that the pursuit of advertising awards was more important to his agencies than delivering sales is a slap in the face not just for those agencies (and remember White by his own admission has no choice but to work with them) but for his marketing department too. It neatly sidesteps some fundamental issues such as product strategy and innovation and, above all, Cadbury's seemingly unstoppable momentum. And if an MD admits that he doesn't have confidence in what his company has been doing, why should anyone else?

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