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Emirates global account quandary as Strawberry Frog splits with Amsterdam

July 11, 2013

emirates46_460If what I hear is correct, Scott Goodson, chairman of micro-network Strawberry Frog, hasn’t been kissing enough princes lately.

The mercurial Goodson – famous for saying his agency wasn’t up for sale, while putting the finishing touches to a deal with PR group APCO – has had a bust-up with his Amsterdam agency, Media Catalyst. That’s Amsterdam agency number two. He also managed to alienate Amsterdam agency number one, headed by SF co-founder Brian Elliott, which now trades as Amsterdam Worldwide. And then he fell out with his Brazilian partner, Alexandre Peralta, of Peralta Sao Paulo – an agency that has gone on to rather greater achievement without him. So, there’s a bit of history to this kind of thing.

But I digress a little. The latest split is unusually serious, because SF Amsterdam/Media Catalyst is the lead agency for SF’s backbone client, Dubai-based Emirates Airline – one of the world’s largest. The Frogs won the account against considerable competition from the likes of BBDO and Grey, back in 2010. And what an account to win: lead agency for a global rebranding campaign worth (according to AdAge at any rate) $300m. This wasn’t just a feather in the cap, but full plumage for a small digitally-inspired creative boutique making its way in the world. Timely sticking plaster as well, given the above-mentioned ructions going on elsewhere in the organisation.

It’s important to point out that most of the credit for winning – and retaining – this account seems to have been down to Amsterdam CEO Hans Howarth, the majority shareholder in Media Catalyst. Goodson, with his habitual talent for self-publicity, owned about 30% of the agency from which he has now been ejected, but somehow managed to maximise most of the plaudits.

The Emirates brief was to turn the airline into an aspirant, lifestyle brand (isn’t one enough in the world?) and SF duly delivered with “Hello Tomorrow”, announced with great pizzazz last April by Sir Maurice Flanagan, executive vice chairman of Emirates Airline : “Our new corporate image and global marketing campaign both underline the confidence we have in our existing products and services, and the vision we have for the future growth of the airline. Emirates is not just offering a way to connect people from point A to point B but is the catalyst to connect people’s hopes, dreams and aspirations.” What this boils down to is getting a younger “audience” hooked on the brand by dextrous use of social media.

Only last month, Omnicom – in the guise of BBDO New York and Atmosphere Proximity – won Emirates North American business, against competition from WPP’s Grey and JWT. At the time, we were assured that the pitch would not in any way affect Strawberry Frog’s tenure of the global branding account. But that was before news of the split with Amsterdam broke. It would be surprising if some of these agencies’ biggest guns are not, at this very moment, on a Boeing 777 heading for Dubai airport. An Emirates one, naturally.

Where all this leaves SF – apart from picking up the pieces – is anyone’s guess.

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HSBC’s £400m global review that never was

March 9, 2013

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.



Rail crash? You wait until they try to auction the 4G mobile phone spectrum

October 4, 2012

Business groups have launched  a scathing attack on the Government over the 4G spectrum auction and say it has revealed serious problems at the heart of public sector procurement. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, expressed a typical view: “It is shocking that such a crucially important process has gone so seriously wrong. Businesses need a stable, reliable telecoms network and certainty in the provision of key infrastructure.” “Procurement mistakes increase risks for companies, threaten jobs and harm Britain’s reputation as a destination for inward investment,” added Adam Marshall, policy director of the British Chambers of Commerce.

Just joking. I’m sure Messrs Walker and Marshall will forgive me for quoting them out of context this once; after all, I’m investing them with seer-like prescience. Their cited words are real, but in fact relate to the very clear and present danger of the West Coast Main Line rail fiasco. The fallout from that will be a moon-cast shadow compared to what will happen if HMG manages to screw up the mobile phone spectrum in the same way it has screwed up our railway network.

As it happens, there has been some relatively good news on the 4G front recently. Maria Miller, the obscure former Grey advertising and PR executive recently catapulted to culture, media and sports secretary, has made a brisk start to her tenure by bringing forward the inexplicably delayed auction date of 4G spectrum to January and cutting through the legal wrangling among telecoms carriers which has deadlocked the introduction of the new, much faster, mobile phone standard to the UK.

But will her timely action be enough to avert a looming disaster? First, a little background. 4G is not some minor incremental improvement on the current standard, 3G. It can offer speeds of up to ten times that of the average current home broadband service. Data-hungry yoof, but more importantly business people and commuters, will love it. Miller herself observes that its introduction is “a key part of economic growth strategy” and will “boost the UK’s economy by around £2-3bn” (growth at last – the stuff that George Osborne’s political dreams are made of). America’s already got it, Apple’s got it, Germany’s got it, Korea’s got it. For God’s sake, Estonia’s got it. Britain, which prides itself on being at the heart of the digital revolution, has not. Why not? Because of years of government dithering over the auction structure. Gordon Brown made a bit of an idiot of himself by appearing to hand out the lucrative 3G spectrum to the telecoms carriers for a song. Successive administrations since have been determined not to make the same mistake twice, but seem uncertain how to prevent it.

Now events have caught up with them. The situation is complex, but distils down to a simple reality. Apple has launched its latest ‘must-have’ iPhone with a 4G capability that no one in the UK will be able to take advantage of in the near future. Well, almost no one. The exception: those who use EE, as of October 30th. Er, let me qualify that. No, not all users of Orange and T-Mobile, the brands which have had all their resources pooled into the Everything Everywhere receptacle (or EE, as it is now known – what a whoopee cushion of a brand name). EE itself has the exclusive iPhone 5 franchise, and only new subscribers, not old customers, will benefit from the 4G offering. Everyone else – that is, the vast majority of UK mobile phone users – will have to wait at least 8 months to subscribe.

It may well be objected that what gives the EE brand a timely ‘digital’ lift is actually brand suicide for the company’s premier and better known brand, Orange. But that’s one for UK chief executive Olaf Swantee and his strategy team to worry about. In the meantime, they can congratulate themselves on having – unlike their competitors – farmed existing spectrum to make space for the 4G platform. A merry Christmas is assured, thanks to the exclusivity of their iPhone 5 4G contract.

Once EE’s rivals, O2, Vodafone and Three, realised what Swantee was up to, cries of  “Unfair” and “Unlevel Playing Field” were heard to rend the air. EE had played the ant in Aesop’s fable, and harvested its existing resources wisely, but the grasshoppers were beside themselves with rage that they would have to wait another six months to grab their share of the new spectrum via a dilatory government auction – and then some before the service could actually be implemented. What’s more, they were prepared to act decisively: they threatened to blunt EE’s leading edge with legal action. That might have been explicable in terms of competitive advantage and buying extra time to build the necessary 4G infrastructure. But as a prelude to launching the 4G standard in the UK, it would have created a public relations disaster. How do you explain to an iPhone-crazy public that access to much higher broadband speeds is being blocked by red-tape, selfish industry interest and legal chicanery?

Miller has therefore done well to defuse the legal wrangling by agreeing to bring forward the spectrum auction date 6 months to the end of January. But implementation of the 4G dream is still a long, long, way away for most of us punters – we’re talking at least the latter end of next year. In the meantime, all sorts of teething problems will need to be sorted out: poor signal distribution, patchy network coverage, a quite possibly incompetent auction process that leads to further legal action and, let’s not forget, potentially incompatible 4G phones.

“Wrong spectrum”. We’re going to be hearing a lot of that in the next 12 months, while the phone companies sort themselves out. If my mobile phone contract were coming up for renewal (which it is not), I would be very tempted to let it ride until at least the beginning of 2014 …


Who will win Tesco’s £110m advertising account?

April 13, 2012

Stand by for the most hotly contested UK advertising pitch of the year – the £110m (Nielsen) Tesco account is up for grabs.

But don’t hold your breath for a result. This is going to be a long-drawn-out contest, meticulously referee’d at every stage by agency intermediary Oystercatchers. Not a cosy inside job, pushed through on a nod and a wink from Tesco’s C Suite, as has tended to be the case in the past.

The first stage, happening quite soon, will be the selection of 13 agencies for a credentials presentation. From these, 6 will be invited to pitch, 3 will be eliminated and the winner will emerge in, oh, July some time. If all goes according to plan. So, expect the air to be thick with speculation over the next 4 months.

Let’s be clear before going any further. What’s particularly interesting about this pitch is not the fact that it is taking place now. Few readers will have failed to notice a changing of the guard at Britain’s top retailer, starting with the departure of group chief executive Sir Terry Leahy about a year ago and his replacement by Phil Clarke. Clarke is clearly a man who knows what he wants, and has wasted little time letting his senior colleagues know it too. Out went one-time rival for the top job Richard Brasher, until very recently UK CEO, after some lacklustre performance in the core operation and in came (a little earlier, as it happened) David Wood, late of Tesco Hungary, as head of UK marketing to replace Carolyn Bradley; meantime micro-managing Clarke has seized the UK helm himself.

Equally evidently, Clarke has been under heavy pressure from shareholders to shake things up, pronto. Tesco is still the UK’s biggest grocer by a wide margin, but it is a declining one. Others – practically all its leading rivals in fact – are bettering it in today’s tough market. Earlier this year, Tesco had to do the unthinkable: issue its first profit warning in 20 years, which knocked about £4.5bn off its stock market valuation in one day.

Personal animosity certainly came into Brasher’s dismissal, but there is little doubt that he was a convenient scapegoat too. And maybe with good reason. Brasher’s Big Price Drop campaign was a prelude to a disastrous Tesco Christmas. Brasher also held some rather fixed views on long-term investment. Whereas, what shareholders actually want is profits now, not in some misty future. Clarke knows that a second profit warning will effectively be his corporate suicide note.

So no pressure, Phil, to review your strategy. Ordinarily, UK advertising might seem to bat fairly low in a retail group CEO’s priorities – way beneath, for example, such operational issues as how many and what sort of new stores to open. Not so here, however. In giving Brasher the heave-ho and replacing the muddled duarchy at the top of UK management with a more focused leadership – himself – Clarke is also implicitly challenging Tesco’s long-established marketing tradition. Note that Brasher – like Leahy – came up the marketing route; before being promoted to UK CEO in March 2011, he had been UK marketing supremo since 2006. Clarke, on the other hand, is grounded in operations and IT, not marketing.

That’s why the key word associated with this advertising review is “clarity”. Having brought more focus to UK leadership, Clarke also intends to bring more focus to Tesco’s UK marketing effort. And he’s going to do it by asking some fundamental questions about Tesco’s current positioning. Are the assumptions underlying ‘Every Little Helps’ still relevant in today’s market? How does Tesco’s current marketing strategy benchmark against that of its apparently more successful UK rivals? Has the Tesco brand become too arrogant and impersonal – through servicing the requirements of the City rather than its customers? Clarke wants ideas from his agency pitch list, not just a new colour chart.

Superficially, this looks like bad news for the incumbent agency of 6 years, The Red Brick Road (or Ruby, or whatever the new digitally-enhanced business is going to be called). Although asked to repitch, it is indissolubly linked to the very marketing tradition that Clarke seems hell-bent on changing. Lineally, TRBR is descended from Lowe Howard-Spink; and the strong historic relationship forged between Lowe founder Sir Frank Lowe and Tesco top brass Leahy and his chief marketer Tim Mason. When Sir Frank split from Lowe & Partners (as it was by then called), Tesco backed his breakaway TRBR, but only on condition that Lowe creative chief Paul Weinberger was an integral part of the deal. To this day Weinberger, now chairman of TRBR, is the key mediating figure on the Tesco account (Lowe himself having retired).

That said, there are plenty of good reasons why Tesco might choose to retain TRBR’s services.

First, alone among competing agencies, TRBR will be the one tailored specifically to Tesco’s requirements. (Indeed, many would say this is its primary problem as a diversified advertising agency: despite doing good work for the likes of Magners cider and Thinkbox, it has failed to shake off the image of being Tesco’s house agency.)

Second, notice that Tesco has been careful not to pull the rug entirely from under TRBR. Up for grabs is all the consumer-facing digital and traditional (ie television, press, radio and outdoor) advertising. But not, you’ll observe, trade advertising, which is a substantial part of the overall TRBR fee package. One explanation for this, no doubt, is the sheer complexity of trade marketing; but Tesco also seems to be sending a mildly positive signal to its agency of longstanding.

Third, since this review is really about positioning rather than a creative makeover or a new catchline, don’t underestimate the skills of David Hackworthy and his TRBR planning department.

Fourth, don’t forget that Tim Mason is part of the review team. It’s surely only a matter of time before shareholders get their way and have Clarke cauterise the eye-watering losses at US venture Fresh & Easy, on which Mason currently spends two-thirds of his executive time. That will free more time for Mason’s other two roles as group deputy chief executive and, more pertinently here, group CMO. (It’s also possible that he might choose at that point to bow out; but no one should bank on it.)

Who else will compete for the account? Many prime candidates with suitable retail experience – BBH, DLKW/Lowe, Fallon, AMV BBDO, Rainey Kelly Campbell Rolfe/Y&R – are excluded precisely because they have conflicting supermarket accounts. However, Tesco has made it clear it will look tolerantly upon other kinds of agency conflict: for instance, a clash in financial services or telecoms.

That leaves plenty of possible contenders. As my associate Stephen Foster at MAA has pointed out, Publicis London is surely one of them. Historically, it was keeper of the Asda account and is now captained by former TRBR managing director and Tesco account director Karen Buchanan.

But the hot money will be on WPP. There’s some unsettled business here. Those with keen memories for this sort of thing will recall that, 7 years ago, WPP agency JWT came close to winning a big supermarket account after hiring two key Tesco agency players, Mark Cadman and Russell Lidstone, from a clearly flagging Lowe.

From what I hear, WPP is putting every resource possible behind winning the Tesco trophy. Not only is JWT throwing its hat into the ring; so are Grey, Ogilvy, 24/7 Media and CHI. Though whether individually or as part of a WPP “Team” effort I don’t yet know.

However, WPP agencies should tread with care.

Tesco will surely be aware, or have been made aware, that there is a certain amount of bad blood between Britain’s best-known agency intermediary Oystercatchers (founded by Suki Thompson and ex-JWT new biz director Peter Cowie) and Britain’s best-known and biggest marketing services company, WPP. Namely, the Everystone breakaway affair and its litigious sequel, which came to an unhappy conclusion about a year ago.

The formality of Tesco’s pitch procedure and its choice of intermediary suggests that there is no easy inside-track here for WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell. I suspect his best course will be to keep an uncharacteristically low profile for the duration of this pitch.


Carolyn Carter bids adieu to Grey Europe

September 3, 2009

Carolyn CarterGrey’s enigmatic ice-maiden is on her way at last. Carolyn Carter, ceo of Grey Europe, has been the target of almost constant speculation about her ‘imminent’ departure since 2006, which she has successfully quashed with Mark Twain’s famous rejoinder. Now, after over 20 years’ service in the higher echelons of an advertising empire long treated by Ed Meyer as his personal fiefdom, but latterly owned by WPP, she really is on her way out. Gone by Christmas time, they say.

Originally, Carter was a client: she joined Grey from General Foods in the early 80s. In 1996 she moved to London as global account director for Mars, a staple Grey client. From 2002  she gradually took on the mantle of John Shannon – possibly the longest-serving senior executive in advertising history – becoming ceo Grey Global Group EMEA in 2004. She, like Shannon, might reasonably have expected to see herself through to retirement age. Meyer was incredibly loyal to senior executives who quietly and efficiently accomplished his aims, which might be defined as personally enriching him, but not at the expense of alienating any of his key clients. It could be a harrowing, stressful role. Which is one reason why top Grey executives used to be some of the most highly paid in advertising.

But the world of Grey changed irrevocably when Meyer decided to cash in his chips and put his agency up for auction in 2005. WPP, the eventual winner, has been every bit as exacting as Meyer, but in a different way. Out went the stellar salaries, Carter’s own excepted.

Carter faced early disappointment when Jim Heekin, formerly of McCann Erickson and Euro RSCG, beat her to the top position at Grey, which anyone else might have interpreted as curtains time. Hence the speculation about her leaving. Cool, ruthless professionalism has seen her through. Until, at least, an unprecedented slump in advertising revenue forced WPP to wield the retrenchment axe more savagely than might otherwise have been the case.

Now it’s time for her to go. David Patton, UK group ceo, will be confirmed as the new EMEA chief. Chris Hirst, his managing director, may take over the top UK role. Carter will miss the London theatre scene, but how much else I do not know.


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