Arif Durrani, head of media at Campaign / editor of Media Week
Arif Durrani, head of media at Campaign / editor of Media Week
A view from Arif Durrani

Tesco review could be make or break for Initiative

Here's a question: when is a media review not a review? Answer: when it concerns Tesco's multimillion-pound media business that has been handled by Interpublic's Initiative for more than 20 years.

After years of speculation of "will they won’t they", it seems the supermarket began a review of its media planning and buying business this week. Details surrounding the process are as secret as a secret squirrel hiding its unnamed jewels in a place that has never been given a name.

The retailer itself "declined to comment" when I put it to them, and then declined to confirm or deny the story when I laid it on even thicker. I believe there is a closed process involving Initiative and two agencies from WPP and Dentsu Aegis Network.

The review is more than just a bit of tyre-kicking and benchmarking but – bizarrely – the retailer is hoping to complete it within a month and without a fuss. If true – and I have every reason to believe it is – it’s a contender for a media first: a client holding a review (and one of the UK’s biggest, to boot) without admitting it to anyone other than those involved.

Whether this approach is designed to protect Initiative or shield the supermarket is anyone’s guess. The only certainty is that it won’t work.

'The review is more than a bit of tyre-kicking but - bizarrely - the retailer is hoping to complete it within a month'

For Initiative, led by its managing director, Sally Weavers, the stakes could not be higher. Tesco represents more than half the agency’s entire billings and is also the biggest single client handled by its parent, IPG Mediabrands, run by the seasoned hand of Andy Jones.

Last year, the supermarket’s billings totalled £87 million, according to Nielsen data, and Initiative is also responsible for the €15 million of spend in Ireland. The agency extended its relationship with Tesco in recent months by picking up a brief for Tesco Content and the econometrics tasks for Tesco Mobile and Tesco Bank.

Whether there is any truth to the rumour that Interpublic’s global leader, Michael Roth, tried to head the review off at the pass but failed to secure a meeting with the retailer’s management is just one detail that will surely come to light over time.

What we do know is that Tesco’s chief executive, Dave Lewis, clearly took up his post at the retail giant in September with a change agenda. The former president of personal care at Unilever already ensured he had adland’s attention when he moved the creative business out of Wieden & Kennedy and into Bartle Bogle Hegarty without a pitch in January.

However, unlike W&K, Initiative has held the business for a bit longer than two years and does not have clients such as Honda, Nike or Three to fall back on.