Tesco/BBH: the ultimate examination of advertising
A view from Maisie McCabe

Tesco/BBH: the ultimate examination of advertising

When Dave Lewis, the chief executive of Tesco, first met Neil Munn, the group chief executive of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, to talk about the troubled retailer’s ad account, they were too engrossed in their conversation to realise that there was a fire in the building. Until a uniformed man arrived and tapped them on the shoulder, anyway.

As they left their drinks at the bar and went out on to the street in front of the Soho House offshoot Little House, there began a process that would result in the shock move of the business nine working days into 2015.

The huge challenges at Tesco have been documented in the press over the past four months. Lewis has been fighting his own fires at a company that has overstretched itself, is in need of public reappraisal and is being undercut and beaten on quality. And that’s even before getting to the accounting scandal and potential criminal charges.

Amid all of this, Munn says that Lewis was looking for a partner able to develop a "more coherent expression" of the Tesco brand. If that could be delivered by someone he knew and trusted, all the better. Munn offered him an agency with a rich creative heritage that had demonstrated (through British Airways) a desire and ability to provide a big and demanding client with a rounded set of services. Lewis decided to jump.

One person I spoke to was flabbergasted that Bartle Bogle Hegarty would give up Waitrose for Tesco

When Neil Christie met Lewis for breakfast at The Wolseley last Wednesday, he knew what was coming. Two-and-a-half years after Wieden & Kennedy won the £110 million ad account, the business was up for renewal. Christie was expecting change.

It is understood that when Christie told the agency the next day, the assembled crowd cheered with relief. Some industry sources say W&K was too precious about the creative work; not prepared to just get stuff out when needed. Yet Christie would challenge any suggestion that the agency was not making money from the business. Moreover, through its work with Nike, W&K is used to fast turnarounds and demanding clients.

One person I spoke to was flabbergasted that BBH would give up Waitrose for Tesco if the Waitrose relationship were strong.

But Munn rejects the idea that it was in a bad place and simply points to the scale of the Tesco opportunity. At a time when some were questioning BBH’s footing, here is a big headline to make people look again.  

For the industry execs who met at the Oystercatchers club this week to discuss raising the profile of marketing, the involvement of a chief executive in an ad account move should be a heartening thing. If "Drastic Dave" can turn things around, and BBH can demonstrate its role in rebuilding a business that lost £2 billion off its market cap in a single day in September, the whole industry could benefit.