HSBC’s £400m global review that never was

Chris Clark HSBCSo, what was all that about? HSBC’s group marketing director Chris Clark calls a review of the “£400m” (actually rather less these days) global account late last year. Well, not exactly a review. More a series of private meetings that happen to take in the incumbent agency’s rivals at Omnicom, IPG and Publicis – just in case they have any bright ideas. No fundamental discussions take place on either strategy or creativity, because none are called for, even from the incumbent JWT.

Sniffing a rat, McCann (IPG) and BBDO (Omnicom) pull out. Late yesterday (a good time to bury news) it trickles out that WPP has, er, retained the account. But there have been a few twists of the kaleidoscope. Most salient is that outsider Saatchi & Saatchi (Publicis) will now handle the small-spending (relatively speaking) retail banking and wealth business across Europe and in Latin America. JWT is still at the epicentre, with the global brand business, but will now share the rest of the account with its WPP sister agency, Grey London.

Is this a classic piece of agency punishment meted out by the client? We still like you, WPP: but you’ve gone a bit flabby. So, just to make sure you’re on your toes, we’ll keep you on tenterhooks for a few months and then award a chunk of business to one of your rivals – to see how hungry they are.

Was it simply an exercise in cheese-paring the fees, as JWT officially likes to see it, on the part of one of the world’s wealthiest institutions?

Or is this Chris Clark desperately trying to justify his job as CMO (in all but name)? A marking time exercise, while he and his boss, HSBC chief executive Stuart Gulliver, dream up a successor to the faded strap line, The World’s Local Bank?

Because, of course, it isn’t anymore. If you rolled the market capitalisation of Barclays, Lloyds Bank and RBS together, they wouldn’t add up to that of HSBC – which remains by far Britain’s largest bank. But internationally, Gulliver has been busy rolling back the borders, with the divestment of businesses from as far afield as Argentina, Russia and Singapore. The proceeds of which were one contributory reason for the humungous profits the bank was able to declare only last week.

In the recent past, Clark has talked up the need to spend more marketing pounds on the product side (i.e., the separate bank businesses) and less on the corporate brand. One reasonable interpretation of this stance is that banks, in these bonus-bashing times, would do well to get their heads down to providing some basic customer service, as opposed to extravagantly boasting about their global expanse.

Another (they are not mutually exclusive) is that Clark and his colleagues haven’t got a clue what they should do. “In the future” doesn’t quite do it, does it? And in any case, as Clark himself once quipped, it’s more of a start than an end line.

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