Asda Owen appointment rings the changes

June 15, 2010

More musical chairs in the grocery sector. Although at a lower level than those explored in my Marketing Week column this week, they are connected to the same phenomenon: the need for change.

Mark Sinnock, Asda’s marketing director, has mysteriously quit after only 15 months in the job and been replaced by director of marketing strategy Jon Owen.

To outward appearances, Sinnock was a fish out of water in the hermetic world of supermarket senior management. Rather than working up from the ranks, he was imported directly from Asda’s then advertising agency, Fallon, where he was chief strategy officer. On closer inspection, however, there were some uncanny echoes in his career move to that made by his mentor and boss, Rick Bendel, who currently rejoices in the title of chief marketing director.

Bendel: Like Sinnock, a former adman

For years, Bendel himself had been an adman – one of whose principal concerns was nurturing and safeguarding the invaluable Asda account (it spends £70m a year in today’s terms). When, after reaching the top of the greasy pole at Publicis Worldwide, his luck ran out in the agency world, he was able to make an effortless transition to the client side – as marketing director of Asda. By a further curious irony, Bendel, having left Publicis, promptly fired his former agency and transfered the Asda account to Fallon; in a similar fashion Fallon lost the business to its sister SSF agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, when Sinnock himself went client side.

The Sinnock hiring was part of an elaborate empire-building exercise in the marketing department whose welter of titles has left outsiders bewildered at to what exactly everyone does. Sinnock reported directly to an elevated Bendel, and was responsible for “developing the marketing and customer strategy across the breadth of Asda’s marketing function,” whatever that means precisely. Alongside him was Katherine Paterson, Asda’s marketing director for communications. Then, reporting to Paterson, was head of brand marketing – and former McCain marketing director – Simon Eyles.

One thing transparently clear from the title verbiage is that Sinnock was brought in to simplify Asda’s complex marketing problems. It’s equally clear that the once-favourite has failed in his task, or perhaps been scapegoated for a collective failure. The new boy, Owen, is of more traditional stock, having joined Asda as head of research in 2005. He will combine responsibility for strategy, advertising, insight and pricing.

It’s hard to avoid linking his appointment with chief executive Andy Bond’s move upstairs at Asda and the arrival of a new ceo, Andy Clarke – Asda’s former chief operating officer. In May Asda revealed a slump in its like-for-like figures, which were down 0.3% in the first three months of the year. It marks the first time they have gone into reverse since 2006. Asda is desperate to shed its image as a recession-driven, promotion-mad price-slasher and has returned to its traditional strategy of everyday low pricing. It is claimed that Owen masterminded the recent Asda Price Guarantee initiative. Certainly his appointment underlines a shift towards greater simplicity and a reassertion of the tried and tested in Asda’s marketing strategy.


Is Asda right for Mark Price?

April 14, 2010

The two names most frequently mentioned as successors to Andy Bond – outgoing chief executive of Asda – are Asda trading director Darren Blackhurst and Waitrose managing director Mark Price.

Price would be an inspired and City-pleasing choice, given his performance at Waitrose, but I wonder whether such speculation is wide of the mark (so to speak). Let’s leave aside the fact that the ceo shortlist is very much biased towards insiders (for instance chief operating officer Andy Clarke and Wal-Mart’s David Cheesewright have also appeared on it) – and that an internal candidate would be in the Asda tradition. What would Price have to gain from such a move? Well, all right – recognition, a broader challenge and, of course, a bigger pay packet. But he could gain that anyway, if he hangs on a little longer at Waitrose. The key thing he lacks at John Lewis, and what he would also lack as a Wal-Mart employee were he to be offered the Asda job, is plc experience.

The plc issue seems to have been a catalyst in Bond’s own ‘surprise’ decision to stand down as Asda ceo after five very successful years at the helm. To be sure, relatively poor trading by Britain’s second-largest grocer during the Christmas period may have caused a bit of friction with Wal-Mart top brass as well. But if anyone thinks that was the real reason for Bond’s decision – after a preceding 15 consecutive quarters of unblemished growth – I cannot do better than quote Planet Retail analyst Bryan Roberts back at them: if Bond is leaving as a result of Asda’s recent trading “then Tesco boss Terry Leahy should be scared.”

Signs of frustration with Wal-Mart have long been apparent, for those who cared to read them. Like former Asda star Justin King – now heading Sainsbury’s – Bond was linked with the role of chief executive at Marks & Spencer; unlike King, Bond took his time in denying any interest. There has also been a suggestion that Bond resented Wal-Mart’s bone-headedness in refusing to provide the financial firepower that would have enabled Asda to better compete with Tesco through an acquisitions programme (embracing, for example, Matalan or Homebase).

As it is, Bond seems to have nicely parlayed himself into a three-day-a-week job as chairman of the Asda executive committee, from which he can consider at leisure his options in the wider business world. These include the Archie Norman/Allan Leighton portfolio route; or the more direct plc path favoured by the likes of King at Sainsbury’s and Richard Baker at Boots. One things is for certain: Bond won’t be short of offers.

Which brings me back to Price and plcs. Price, like Bond, has spent much of his career working his way up one organisation; even longer, in fact, than Bond’s 16 years at Asda. As much as anyone can be – as its first marketing director, now its managing director – the self-styled Chubby Grocer is Mr Waitrose. If he’s going to jump ship from John Lewis after all this time, he should set his sights higher than Asda.


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