Obama’s take on Change4Life

November 30, 2009

Sian Jarvis, director general of communications at the Department of Health, produced a confidently upbeat report on the Government’s showpiece healthcare communications policy, Change4Life, at a recent Advertising Association sponsored conference, Food Advertising: Time for a Healthy Debate.

The £75m three-year anti-obesity campaign, launched in January this year, is now about to move into its next phase, targeting adults of 45 and above.

As Jarvis herself confessed, the campaign (which is handled by M&C Saatchi) was the brief from hell. A nightmare of political correctness, it had to avoid a patronising, admonitory tone and persuade rather than bludgeon. Despite the fact it is all about health, there could be no mention of sport and fitness (which are middle-class connotations, and therefore not “inclusive”). All in all, it was a miracle that those luminous, animated little men and women made it onto our television screens at all.

Despite this unpromising start, Jarvis was able to report that the campaign has, in ten months, signed up 170 partners and achieved high ratings on most awareness/satisfaction indices.

Probably the biggest endorsement, however, is the fact that the Change4Life blueprint is now being actively considered for a US roll-out. Health secretary Andy Burnham was recently in the White House giving President Barack Obama’s team a briefing on the whys and wherefores. Do expect a US-version of Change4Life in the not-too-distant future. Don’t expect the US taxpayer to be nearly as generous as our own. That would be a “socialist” solution and therefore politically unacceptable in the Land of the Free. Most likely, a very large begging bowl will be sent around industry.

More on Change4Life, and other facets of the conference, in my Marketing Week column this week.

Shane Warne, Cheryl Cole, Gordon Brown and a spate of bad-hair advertising

November 25, 2009

It must be national bad hair week and I hadn’t noticed. Nothing else would seem to explain the explosion of hair-related controversies in the media.

Most recent is the shocking case of Australian cricket legend Shane Warne’s hair loss. He and his follicularly-challenged partner in crime Graham Gooch have just been banned. But not, you’ll be glad to hear, from playing cricket. No, it’s much more trivial than that. The Advertising Standards Authority has cracked down on an ad created for trichologist Advanced Hair Studio – promoting its laser therapy and “strand by strand” technology – to whom our two sporting heroes have been lending not only their prestige but their balding pates.

I’m a little at sea over why the ASA has taken two years to reach such a Draconian verdict. After all, the ad doesn’t actually say that AHS cures hair loss.

Which moves me neatly on to hair crisis number two: the case of Cheryl Cole’s false locks. How come that Elvive can get away with plying a palpably false impression of bountiful, bouncing, natural hair, while AHS isn’t even given the benefit of a few reimplanted strands? The answer, as so often, lies in the small print. The ASA found in favour of Elvive because it provided subliminally small disclaimers about Cheryl’s hair not being entirely her own (quite a lot is nylon, I gather). This is not, I’m afraid, a finding which sits happily within the ASA remit of  upholding “legal, decent, honest and truthful” advertising. Such dishonesty is more widespread in cosmetics advertising than we would like to believe.

The third bad hair advertising controversy is not so much a case of fairness as of silliness. I refer to the opening rounds of our forthcoming general election campaign and the two stunningly original poster ads it has so far produced: one for the Conservative Party (Euro RSCG) and one for Labour (Saatchi & Saatchi), both pillorying each other as the Jedwards, whose twin misfortunes are to have been evicted from the X-Factor, and to be burdened with a hairstyle that must make Shane Warne think twice about the wisdom of hair implants. The ASA won’t be allowed to touch these ads, more’s the pity.

A&E comes off the critical list

November 20, 2009

With just days to go before a High Court hearing they seemed doomed to lose, the founding partners of agency hotshop Adam & Eve have settled out of court with WPP.

The predicted grovelling apology was forthcoming and has been prominently displayed on WPP’s website, like some traitor’s head spiked at the Tower of London. In it, partners James Murphy, David Golding and Ben Priest fulsomely acknowledge that they broke the terms of their gardening leave when they quit WPP-owned Young & Rubicam to set up A&E. Further, if “unintentionally”, that they absconded with WPP-owned data.

There was also a price to pay, said to be somewhat under £1m, plus considerable legal expenses: perhaps £1m in all. That is cheap compared with the $10m (before costs) WPP recently extracted from two former George Patterson executives and the agency’s ex-owner, PEP, in Australia. But it is no small change for the embattled A&E partners, who are under personal guarantee. Their only consolation is that A&E has escaped to fight another day.

Cheil’s $10m bid to buy the Barbarians

November 12, 2009

Word reaches me that Korea’s leading agency Cheil Worldwide is acquiring US interactive network Barbarian Group – which has outlets in New York, Boston and San Francisco – for a mere $10m. That’s a lot less than the $44m it appears to have paid for a 49% stake in UK agency Beattie McGuinness Bungay late last year and some are speculating that Barbarian, a whizzy maverick born in the meltdown of the dotcom boom, has finally run out of money. But I couldn’t possibly comment on that.

Bruce HainesWhat I will say is this acquisition has the finger-prints of Bruce Haines, Cheil’s global chief operating officer, on it.

Bear with me. Haines, who has been prized throughout his career for his managerial skill, quit as group ceo of Leo Burnett London in acrimonious circumstances two years ago. The bust-up was over a restructure he profoundly disagreed with. Burnett is Samsung’s lead global agency, so no great surprise to find Haines being snapped up by Cheil, Samsung’s in-house agency (it owns 18%). It was perhaps more surprising to find Haines, who spoke not a word of Korean, decamping with his family to Seoul.

We’re now beginning to get the fuller picture. Haines has been given a war-chest to help transform Cheil from an introverted Korean giant dominated by one really big client into a global micro-network. Not by accident the deal with BMB – one of London’s hottest creative properties – mirrors the BBH relationship with Haines’ former alma mater, Publicis Groupe, owner of Burnett: the aim is arm’s length creative freedom. It has certainly given BMB the financial freedom to set up shop in the USA.

The Barbarian deal looks like a second leg to Haines’ strategy: the strengthening of Cheil USA. So far, the US end of the network has confined itself to poaching key staff (for example, three senior executives from Draftfcb). Now it seems to be swallowing whole agencies. Might we speculate that part of Haines’ end game is to wean Samsung entirely away from Burnett, by providing a convincing alternative resource? BMB has already picked up a handsome Samsung dividend by taking the Cheil Won.

As for Barbarian Group, strictly speaking it is a digital production company which is as likely to hire out its talents to agencies (including Crispin Porter + Bogusky and BBH) as to clients direct. There are certainly signs that it has, like the rest of the agency world, had to make heavy cuts. Last July, it shed about 15% of its staff. The question now is: will its promiscuous, project-led culture be compromised by being a part of Cheil? It’s a strange one, no doubt about it.

UPDATE: I see Rick Webb, Barbarian COO, has been doing his best to deny the story (not very convincingly). My understanding is that Barbarian has signed a memorandum of understanding with Cheil, which will last a month. The owners of Barbarian will pick up $10m if the deal goes through.

Would you Adam & Eve it?

November 11, 2009

Martin SorrellWhere does he find the time? Besides dealing with “fundamental strategic issues” every day of his working life (ie, every day), WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell has developed a formidable talent for litigation.

The latest scalps are a group of executives who conspired to swindle WPP over the purchase of one of Australia’s most venerable agencies, George Patterson. Briefly, two Patts execs (as they say Down Under), md Anthony Heraghty and ecd James McGrath, were secretly channelled $1.5m by the former owner, Pacific Equity Partners, to stay on for a year, as an inducement for WPP to pay a higher price. They duly did, then quit: which obviously left Hamish McLennan, the group ceo of acquiring WPP agency Y&R, looking extremely vulnerable; if not quite so vulnerable as certain strategic Patts accounts.

That was three years ago. Dogged legal pursuit has resulted in an unreserved apology from Heraghty and McGrath, and well over $10m damages extracted from all the defendants, including PEP. PEP, while admitting it knew about the agreements, has blamed lawyers Clayton Utz for poor advice. Sorrell is now, separately, pursuing Clayton Utz.

And the message is? Watch out for the High Court in London on Monday, November 23rd, when Sorrell attempts to extract a similar package from Adam & Eve, the agency that had the temerity to break away from WPP without asking. I am assured that nothing less than a grovelling apology and a great deal of money will suffice.

Maclaren takes a financial bath, but will it lose the baby as well?

November 10, 2009

Maclaren buggyMaclaren, the British baby pushchair brand, has just landed itself in the biggest crisis of its 44-year history after mishandling a recall of its products.

I do not know how much of Maclaren’s sales the umbrella-style stroller models in question account for, but it must be a lot. One million of them are being withdrawn from the US market, after 12 children suffered amputations after getting their fingers caught in the retracting hinges. Given that the pushchairs retail at an average of over $400 each, that the US is MacLaren’s largest market, and that it will have to fit plastic protective coverings to the hinges of each and every one of the recalled strollers, we can easily grasp the financial scale of the crisis.

But money is not the really important issue here. Maclaren markets itself as “the world’s most safe, durable, innovative and stylish baby buggies and strollers”, so the recall is a huge slap in the face. The strollers are an iconic representation of the company, on which its reputation stands or falls. And the way things are looking at the moment, it’s likely to plummet.

Why? After all, taken step by step, Maclaren has done some of the right things. It has clearly assessed the risk issue over a number of years, and found it to be infinitesimally small from a statistical point of view. Once adverse publicity began to affect its sales, it readily co-operated with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission and organised a voluntary recall.

What it has not done is reassure customers in its other markets, particularly its home one, that it will treat them on the same level. It has also failed to communicate its point of view, let alone a comforting message. Instead, we have virtual radio silence. In short, Maclaren has given the impression that it is at once arrogant and timid: not a winning combination for the future.

It’s arrogant, because it seems to be saying that the rest of the world doesn’t matter as much as its US customers. All right, we know the extenuating circumstances. There aren’t nearly as many mangled fingers over here; and trading standards officers have not put the same pressure on Maclaren for a recall. Lastly, and most cynically, we may guess that Maclaren has more to fear from ambulance-chasing shysters in the US than anywhere else in the world.

Even so, the lame suggestion that UK and European customers can make do by contacting the company and acquiring a safety kit free of charge simply won’t do. We should be so lucky. The company website was inaccessible when I tried it and the phone lines are most likely permanently engaged.

In a major brand crisis, a bunker mentality is the last thing you need. Anticipation, not calculated reaction, is the name of the game. Put out a message of reassurance. Let it come directly from the chief executive. Don’t hide behind PR flunkies. Engage with the media personally. Apologise (even if no apology is strictly warranted); and do it in print, with newspaper advertisements (they’ll get picked up on Google soon enough).

That’s exactly what Mars (not a company you naturally associate with humble pie) did a few years ago when it took a wrong turn on one of its key confectionery ingredients. Mars made an careless mistake when it decided, without consultation, to start using animal rennet, so alienating a vocal minority of its customers – vegetarians. After 6,000 people complained, Mars UK md Fiona Dawson personally took charge of a remedial campaign that involved asserting unequivocally “The consumer is boss” and spending millions of pounds on broadcasting an apology. She even gave out her personal email address.

What Mars seems to understand, but Maclaren so far doesn’t, is that small things are everything in marketing. Small things like the minute amount of benzene that destroyed Perrier’s primacy as a mineral water brand; the minor changes to a syrup formula that nearly did for Coke; the minute amounts of salmonella found in Cadbury’s plant; or – even – 12 little fingers. When commercial success relies on something as emotionally charged as a child’s safety, the importance of a caring attitude towards your customers cannot be overemphasised.

Age may wither them and custom stale their finite variety

November 7, 2009

Tim LindsayI was struck by WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell’s comment on the marketing services industry at ad:tech this week. “The people who run agencies tend to be of an older vintage – to put it politely,” he said. “They tend to be resistant to change and want to spend the last three to four years of their careers travelling around the world rather than dealing with fundamental strategic issues on a daily basis.”

They should be so lucky to reach “an older vintage” these days. The number of people over 50 who are active in the ad business is a vanishingly small figure, according to Incorporated Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) figures, and it’s getting smaller all the time. One particularly endangered species seems to be the heads, or group heads, of UK network creative agencies.

To take a small but illuminating sample, Gary Leih, group head of Ogilvy (just over 50), and Tim Lindsay, president of TBWA\London (53), have both been put out to pasture recently. We could perhaps add the case of Bruce Haines, group chief at Leo Burnett, who managed to stay the course until the ripe old age of 55. And the comparatively youthful former chairman and group chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, Lee Daley, who moved on in his late forties to an all-too-brief spell as marketing director of Manchester United. While we’re there, let’s tie in the long time management void at the top of Lowe, and the problems in filling the top slots at Publicis UK a couple of years ago when the self-same Lindsay left for TBWA.

To go back to Sorrell, I’m not sure anyone – other than himself perhaps – is capable of dealing with “fundamental strategic issues on a daily basis”. Just one or two over a two-year period is usually enough. As far as I can see, that’s exactly what Daley, Leih and Lindsay tried to do. They all instituted fairly far-reaching management changes in an effort to meet the digital challenge subverting traditional agency structures. With hindsight, the problem seems to be that they were judged not to have gone far enough. Or, put another way, they may indeed have embraced a “fundamental strategic issue”, but they were not allowed long enough to savour their triumph. The truth is, if an agency doesn’t bring in enough big business in the first two years of your tenure, you’re likely to be turfed out in the third. The digital challenge may simply have made it a little harder to win that business in the first place.

Lindsay was probably on skid row once his agency lost the advertising account for McCain to Beattie McGuinness Bungay. He was lucky to survive the subsequent – abortive – attempt to buy BMB. Nissan had also begun to look shaky. Pinning the Media Arts rebranding fiasco on him sounds like the thinnest of subterfuges employed by a management that had long since lost confidence in him – fairly or otherwise.

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