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Big is beastly, especially if we’re talking big banks like Barclays

August 28, 2012

Which brands make us most angry? Yes, you guessed correctly. The big ones that rip us off, starve us of mortgage funds, pilfer our savings and behave with amoral disregard for everyone’s interest but their own. Anything, in short, that ends with the word “Bank”.

But come, let’s be a bit more specific. How about some brand differentiation – which is the worst, and which the runner-up? Well, coming in at number 2 – just behind the winning “All banks” category – is Barclays. And next, in 7th position, is Royal Bank of Scotland.

I know all of this thanks to some research, just out, conducted by YouGov and commissioned by creative agency Johnny Fearless (of which more below).

Why don’t Lloyds, Santander and HSBC make it into the top 10? Surely not on account of the odour of sanctity. We can only speculate, but could it be that Barclays and RBS have the two biggest Swinging Dicks attached to their brand heritage, namely Bob Diamond and Fred the Shred? I doubt that most people know who Antonio Horta-Osario is, and would struggle to recall his name in sufficient detail if they did. Which is probably just as well for Horta-Osario and Lloyds Bank.

More interesting, if perplexing in some ways, is the identity of the other 7 members of this exclusive Top 10 club. Tenth equal with Coca-Cola is Nestlé – still regarded as a corporate pariah on account of its anti-social baby-milk marketing practices in developing countries. I’m sure that doesn’t depress sales of Kit-Kats and Yorkie bars one bit, though.

And what’s Coke doing in there? Sorry boys and girls, for all your tender investment in clean athleticism, those grubby practices in Third World countries have not gone unnoticed.

Next up, “All utilities companies” at number 8, on account of their high prices and perceived profiteering. But two deserving special mentions here are British Gas – with its conspicuously bad customer service; and BT – with its ineffectual overseas call centres.

Virgin Media is in there at number 8 as well, although I have yet to discover whether this is because we’re all being beastly to Beardie or on account of some graver underlying cause – such as woefully inadequate service.

That leaves us with McDonald’s at number 4 – poor quality food and an inappropriate Olympics sponsorship, apparently.

…And, weighing in at number 3, the nation’s unfavourite retailer – Tesco. Memo to Tesco CEO Phil Clarke: it’s because you’re too big for your boots, despoil our high streets and blackmail your suppliers. No other retailer can do this so successfully, it seems.

  1. Which companies or brands make you feel angry? 
  2. What is it they do to make you feel angry?
Rank Company or brand
1 All banks’, ‘Banks’
2 Barclays
3 Tesco
4 McDonald’s
5 BT
6 British Gas
7 Royal Bank of Scotland’, ‘RBS’
8= Virgin Media
8= Utilities’, ‘Energy companies’
10= Nestlé
10= Coca-Cola

The research was commissioned by Johnny Fearless and carried out by YouGov. Total sample size was 2077 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between August 3-6th 2012. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

Johnny Fearless is a Soho start-up agency founded by Paul Domenet and Neil Hughston, whose stock in trade is creating “social crackle” around brand messages. Or so it says in their publicity blurb.

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Avis drops classic ‘We try harder’ tagline – and a clanger with new ad campaign

August 28, 2012

Remember when Sir Richard Branson stole the national flag for his own airline after British Airways said it didn’t want it any more? Well, there’s a similar golden opportunity beckoning for any cheeky entrepreneur working in the car-hire sector.

After 50 years, Avis has decided to discard one of the most famous taglines in advertising: “We Try Harder.”

Apparently, no one thinks they do any more. Avis has slipped down the global batting order from second, behind Hertz, to third, behind Entreprise Holdings, which owns the Alamo, Enterprise and National brands.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. And these measures really are desperate, as will be seen.

It will not have escaped readers’ attention that things have changed a tad in the car-hire business over the past five decades. The main catalyst has been budget airlines, which have successfully turned the holiday hire-car proposition into a commodity. Where once you bought, or thought you were buying, a superior service, you now buy a much stripped-down rental price. Of course, this base price is a bit of illusion, because once you have added on sat-nav, baby-seats, ski-racks and extortionate premium and super-premium insurance cover (so you don’t have to pay a £700 excess on a scraped wing or £200 for a new tyre) – Hey Presto! –  it has doubled. But that’s the way it is today – if you don’t want to pay upfront, you don’t have to. Which means the car-hire companies have had to look elsewhere to fatten their profits.

And where better than expense-accounted businessmen turning a hard morning at the presentation lectern into a pleasant afternoon at the golf club?

That, at least, seems to be the thinking of new broom Avis chief marketing officer Jeannine Haas, who has fired McCann Erickson and brought in Leo Burnett to deliver her new baby.

And what a mewler and a puker it is.

Out this week, the new campaign – called “It’s Your Space” – tries to communicate in a “lighthearted way” how the space inside a rental vehicle can be a productive environment where business travellers can “recharge their batteries”. Health and safety executives might have something to say about the way they do it but, that aside, judge for yourselves the quality of the ads:

What a pity you can’t say they are so bad they make you laugh. But they aren’t: they’re just bland beyond belief. It’s Your Space might be more appropriately titled “A Waste of Space.” Which is all the more unfortunate given the brand’s legacy.

The line “We Try Harder” was introduced by DDB in 1962 after Avis CEO Robert Townsend turned in desperation to the agency after many profitless years. Bill Bernbach himself is supposed to have cracked the problem by asking a number of Avis employees what it was about their service that distinguished it. But it was copywriter Paula Green who actually came up with the line.

There are not many occasions when you can unequivocally point the finger at advertising as the agent of success, but this was one of them. Within a year, Avis had turned a profit for the first time in over a decade.

I can’t, somehow, see similar spectacular results arising from the present campaign.

So, arise Sir Stelios and steal this opportunity while you may.


Lévy accused of falsely denouncing ‘corrupt’ Renault marketing executive

August 25, 2012

In a new twist to an old corruption scandal that engulfed Renault two years ago, Maurice Lévy, head of Publicis Groupe, has been accused of bringing about the unfair dismissal of a senior marketing executive at the French car company.

To recap, three senior Renault executives were dismissed at the beginning of 2011 after they were accused – falsely it later turned out – of passing top-secret electric-car technology to the Chinese. At the same time Philippe Clogenson, director of customer marketing, was fired after he was found to have accepted corrupt payment from a supplier.

Later, Renault boss Carlos Ghosn was forced into an embarrassing climbdown and his second-in-command resigned after it emerged the allegations that had brought down all four executives were false.

Clogenson was subsequently reinstated and compensated for wrongful dismissal (as were the other three executives).

It now emerges that the man who accused him was none other than Lévy himself. That at least is the substance of a witness statement from Marc Tixador, a former policeman now himself the subject of an investigation, who was hired by Renault to conduct an internal inquiry into the allegations.

According to Tixador: “In May 2009, we were put onto the Philippe Clogenson case by his direct superior, Stephen Norman. He, in turn, had been tipped off by M.Lévy, boss of Publicis, that a Renault employee whose first name was “Philippe” and who, more specifically, was in charge of marketing, had been taking bribes from certain suppliers. Our internal inquiry and discussions with Publicis enabled us to establish that the suspect must have been Philippe Clogenson.”

Lévy has been quick to play down his own role. While not denying Tixador’s statement, he had this to tell the French national newspaper Libération: “Some information came my way, but no surname was mentioned. I purely and simply passed that information to Renault, with infinite precaution. I didn’t denounce M. Clogenson or anyone else. I didn’t know the surname and I didn’t try to find it out either. It was the internal security team at Renault who tracked it down and made the deduction.”

This, to say the least, is a lame mitigation of his conduct. As Libération sarcastically points out, the very mention of a Philippe working in marketing would have enormously simplified the task of the internal investigation. But the newspaper also casts doubt upon the authenticity of Lévy’s account. It says that Tixador’s colleague, an ex-military type called Dominique Gevrey (himself under investigation at one point), gave a much more explicit version of Lévy’s role: “Lévy telephoned Tixador directly, who put the speaker-phone on in my presence.” Lévy then (according to Libération’s account) proceeded to badmouth Clogenson (accablant Clogenson de tous les maux). Gevrey claimed that Norman played only a minor part in the investigation, passing on the information that he had been told Clogenson and a supplier were involved in financial irregularities – without at any point specifying who the source of these accusations was.

What remains to be unravelled is Lévy’s motive for tipping off the investigation team about Clogenson. Libération, which broke the story yesterday, speculates that it could have something to do with Clogenson giving business to digital agency Fullsix – a competitor to Publicis, which is the dominant Renault agency.


The Sun recovers its moral purpose

August 24, 2012

It’s time to embark upon a subject of the gravest national importance: the question of who should be allowed to see images of Prince Harry cavorting in a Las Vegas hotel room without any clothes on.

Many may find these images both aesthetically distasteful and irrelevant to their otherwise busy lives. But, on occasions like this, we must put aside such petty prejudices and brace ourselves to a task of greater moment, even if every sinew in our bodies aches to avoid it.

I refer of course to the Public Interest, and the media’s inalienable right to uphold it. Most of you will by now be uncomfortably aware that uncensored images of the Prince in his altogether have been circulating freely on the internet, where they pose an unrestricted threat to the morals of our minors (should they be unlucky enough to encounter them). Why should a few children be so privileged? Surely it is the duty of all citizens to immerse themselves in such tackiness in order that the Public Good prevail?

That is why the  time has clearly arrived to brush aside both the feudal obfuscation of St James’s Palace and the limp-wristed admonitions of the Press Complaints Commission. And publish and be damned.

Many newspapers, it must be said, have shirked this onerous responsibility – no doubt cowed by the poisonous, anti-democratic miasma that has descended upon freedom of expression in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.

Thank goodness, therefore, for The Sun which, uniquely among the press, has proved itself an uncompromised standard-bearer of all that is best in British life. It alone has had the courage to publish something not only in the public interest but, much more important to our sense of national values, something that interests the public.

It was – naturally – a tough decision to publish, and one not entered into lightly. News International lawyers will have argued against further sullying a reputation already mired by the perception that The Sun is a cynical purveyor of double-standards and hypocrisy.

Not so, of course. As no less a person than Elisabeth Murdoch has just pointed out in her MacTaggart Lecture, “Profit without purpose is a recipe for disaster.” In the past, and under the misguided leadership of her brother James, it has to be admitted The Sun occasionally lost its moral compass in making an unprincipled grab for profits whenever the opportunity of a few extra newspaper sales beckoned.

But now, revitalised by a moral vigour flowing from the very top of the organisation that owns it, The Sun can proudly claim to have recovered its purpose in national life. As a muckraker.


The ads that defined Tony Scott

August 22, 2012

For the late Sixties Hollywood Britpack – Ridley Scott, Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lyne, David Puttnam – commercials production was the school where they learned the film-making art.

Tony, Ridley’s younger brother by 7 years, was no exception. Initially, having graduated from the Royal College of Art, he hankered after the austere, attic-lit life of the painter. But materialism – and maybe common sense – got the better of him. In 1967, Ridley Sr lured him into joining his nascent production company RSA (Ridley Scott Associates) with the promise of a Ferrari. It is invidious making a selection from the hundreds of high-grade TV commercials that followed during what the younger Scott later described as a generation of “girls, jeans, rock and roll – a wild period in advertising; … a blast.” But here, all the same, are a few milestones:

First, what we might now refer to as Barclays’s finest hour, with Anthony Hopkins in the starring role of Bob Diamond. A classic, even 12 years later:

Then the Viggen jet fighter ad for Saab, which allegedly put Tony in the frame for making Top Gun, his best-known film:

And finally, finally – his last ad, made for BBDO and Mountain Dew, and featuring Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban :

It’s all in that last line, isn’t it? “But I’m Mark Cuban!” Scott’s sudden death last Sunday remains a mystery. His wife has discounted all rumours that he was suffering from “inoperable brain cancer”.


Ad regulator attempts to decontaminate toxic MMR/autism controversy

August 8, 2012

You have to feel a little sorry for Guy Parker and his team at the Advertising Standards Authority. Every now and then an issue comes along with a screaming public health warning blazoned all over it – “Highly Toxic, On No Account Handle.” Yet they manfully don the protective gear and attempt to decontaminate it for the public good just the same. Knowing, all the while, that there are no heroes in these situations, only casualties.

MMR – the triple measles, mumps and Rubella (German measles) vaccination – is just such an issue. Babyjabs is an organisation, backed by the medical prestige of one Dr Richard Halvorsen, that firmly believes some of the unpleasant side-effects of the triple-jab – which include the possibility of autism – can be mitigated by the simple expedient of administering all three vaccinations individually. They don’t say single vaccinations have no side effects – they do say the side effects are less likely to occur. For instance: “It is very likely that the MMR causes autism and bowel disease in some children. It is probable that the single measles vaccine can also do this, but, if so, much more rarely than the MMR.”

Many parents persist in agreeing with these conclusions, albeit on a common-sense, non-scientific level. Much to the consternation of the UK medical establishment and the National Health Service, which for years have been attempting to stamp out a heresy that, by implication, calls into question the authority of eminent doctors, not to mention the sacrosanct commercial right of Big Pharma (in this case the saintly GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi Pasteur MSD) to flog billions of pounds-worth of the triple vaccine to the NHS.

The ASA has had to step in and slap down Babyjabs after a single anonymous complainant (possibly a Witchfinder General at the General Medical Council, but we cannot be certain) called into question the veracity of website claims about MMR’s pernicious effects.

MMR has been fraught with controversy since Dr Andrew Wakefield’s, er, seminal research into the subject surfaced in 1998. Wakefield purported to have found a definite link between the triple vaccine and the growing incidence of autism. So influential was the backwash from his research that, at one time, uptake of the MMR jab was 60% down in some parts of the country. But it was later demonstrated that Wakefield had “fixed” the results of his research and that he had, in any case, an underlying agenda at odds with dispassionate scientific inquiry. He was struck off the medical register and now quietly plies his trade in other realms.

Wakefield is not the only dangerous heretic, however. Robert F Kennedy Jnr, son of the late assassinated presidential candidate no less, has also come back into the fray with a refreshed set of allegations suggesting that a vaccine preservative containing mercury (thimerosal by name), plus the unseasonable number of vaccines pumped into kids before they are two, may have something to do with the autism syndrome. His argument depends, to some extent, upon the perceived relative absence of autism within the Pennsylvania Amish community – which is proverbially hostile to the whole idea of vaccination programmes.

It remains to be seen whether Wakefield will be viewed by future generations as one of the greatest medical fraudsters of all time, or as some kind of Christopher Columbus figure – a historic pioneer who found the wrong continent with the aid of a faulty compass.


InterPublicis Groupe – who would run it?

August 3, 2012

The market, as I said last week, is awash with rumours that Publicis Groupe is about to pounce on poor old Interpublic.

No, really – seriously awash. So much so that IPG stock had jumped more than 10% to $10.87 when I last looked, on speculation that PG is considering a $15-a-share paper-and-cash knock-out deal which would value IPG at $6bn. Rothschild is said to be working feverishly behind the scenes with other banks.

And IPG, what is it saying? “It is our policy not to comment on market rumors or speculation.” So, that might be a yes then. Publicis Groupe? Impenetrable silence. The rumour has got the investment community hooked, that’s for sure:  “We think the reports are credible,” Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser tells us in a research note.  Wieser is a former Interpublic executive who worked at its MagnaGlobal arm.

But how credible? Sure, from a financial engineering point of view it looks plausible. It would catapult Publicis Groupe to second largest marketing services group by revenue, behind WPP – creating a spectacular rejoinder to Dentsu’s stunning $5bn takeover bid for Aegis. And mean that PG pdg Maurice Lévy could exit the stage after a high ‘C’ that cracks all the chandeliers.

Client conflicts? Not as bad as they might seem at first sight – given the size of these two behemoths. For example, they share L’Oréal and Nestlé; they have shared General Motors. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have minded being a fly on the wall when Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, and Robert McDonald, CEO of Procter & Gamble, first heard the rumour. It’s not just a question of client conflict – the two rivals reputedly loathe each other.

But here’s my real question. Who is going to run the new show? A sophisticated French adman who is too old and keeps telling us he is about to retire? Or a US former corporate lawyer (step forward Michael Roth) whose track record in running a publicly quoted marketing services company is at best indifferent? Would anyone except a Frenchman be allowed to run such a company, given that Publicis Groupe is such a national treasure? And if a Frenchman, who has the stature?

Over two years ago I flagged up the possibility of just such a merger. Then, like now, IPG’s share price was depressed and the moment seemed opportune.

At that time, PG had recently acquired an expensive M&A expert from Goldman Sachs called Isabelle Simon, whose skills were exactly matched to crafting just such a financial operation. And the PG succession crisis seemed a lot less pressing than it is today.

Simon clearly got fed up waiting. Last year she defected to a Monaco gambling organisation.

UPDATE 6/8/12: It turns out IPG bid fever is no more than a symptom of mid-summer madness. Publicis has released, tardily it must be said, the following statement: “Publicis Groupe denies having engaged in any discussions with Interpublic Group of Companies and confirms that it has not commissioned any bank to undertake any such discussions.” There is of course room to manoeuvre within the terms of this statement. Notice, for example, that Publicis does not exclude the possibility of having planned such a bid, merely having “discussed” it with IPG or one of its investment intermediaries. Nevertheless, the denial puts the dampers on a merger which, these days, doesn’t add up so compellingly for PG.


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