Debenhams brushes off the past, Burgess loses his Local Jewels, Loaded is spent and Foster’s will get funnier

August 23, 2010

Four thoughts on a week spent away:

1. Debenhams has irrevocably hitched itself to the voguish positioning of “natural beauty” pioneered by Unilever’s Dove – with its decision to bannish “air-brushed” fashion models. The department store has been making a number of gestures in this area recently – for example, using a size 16 and a disabled model. But this latest initiative looks definitive.

Debenham’s rallying to the cause raises some embarrassing issues for other elements of the fashion industry which, shall we say, have been less forthcoming on the permissible limits of artifice in projecting an advertising image both unrealistic and unattainable. L’Oréal, for instance, seems entirely comfortable with lightening the skin pigment of rock star Beyoncé Knowles. And let’s not forget the vexed case of Cheryl Cole’s preternaturally bouncy hair extensions, which featured in an Elvive campaign. The Advertising Standards Authority gave Cheryl a clean bill of health. But I cannot help thinking this was a wrong call, out of step with the times. What Dove and Debenhams are doing is the thin edge of a wedge fast being driven into a post-production fixated fashion industry.

2. Now Unilever’s “Local Jewels” really have lost their setting. The departure of Matt Burgess, UK managing director of Marmite, Peperami, Pot Noodle, Bovril and Slim-Fast, seemingly brings to a painful conclusion Unilever’s interesting Chrysalis project, which was formally dissolved last month. Like its architect James Hill, Burgess has moved elsewhere in the organisation. Details remain sketchy, but he would – lucky man – appear to be assuming responsibility for integrating the Radox, Brylcreem and Sanex brands offloaded by Sara Lee into Unilever’s skincare division. Not without a last hurrah, however. The crowd-sourced Peperami ad, described in greater detail by Louise Jack on Pitch, may not be to everyone’s taste. But it’s a wake-up call to agencies.

3. IPC’s willingness to dispose of Loaded, a nineties best-seller, is a reminder of how much the lad’s mag phenomenon has been butchered by the internet. According to the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, Loaded lost over 26% of its circulation in the last year. That may be a disaster, but it’s by no means a unique one. FHM, now owned by Bauer Media, lost about 18%; while the weeklies Zoo (Bauer again) and Nuts (IPC again) plunged 22% and 17% respectively. From Phwoar! to Uh-ah! in less than 20 years.

4. While on matters laddish, was I alone in being underwhelmed by Adam & Eve’s first stab at refashioning the Foster’s campaign? To the untutored eye, it looked very much like a seamless continuation of the hackneyed stuff that has been pouring out of M&C Saatchi these past few years. Where was the simple Big Idea the client claimed had won A&E the account?

Now we know. Simple, but brilliant. One-off remakes of some of our best-known laddish comedies – Alan Partridge and the The Fast Show have been mentioned – using where possible the original writers, producers and stars; all inexpensively posted on the internet. And all intended to build on Foster’s title sponsorship of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards and Channel 4 comedy. Let’s see how the idea catches on.


Why Unilever’s Chrysalis was no butterfly

July 5, 2010

“Odd” was how one highly placed Unilever source described the food, toiletries and detergent giant’s decision to scrap its innovative Chrysalis unit after only two years. Odd indeed: its disappearance is as enigmatic as its existence in the first place.

Chrysalis was a kind of wholly-owned incubator, in which Unilever stored some of its most treasured “local jewels”, such as Marmite, Pot Noodles, Peperami, Slim-Fast and Bovril. Altogether, there were 14 of them, stretching across 3 markets: Germany, France and Britain. These brands had one thing in common. Their quirky, national character possessed almost no transborder appeal. On the other hand, put together, they added up to a £500m business – no small change.

Unilever never made the rationale of Chrysalis entirely clear, leaving journalists and City analysts to fill the vacuum with speculation. Unilever’s one categorical utterance on the subject was that the brands were not for sale. Which the City boys (such as Citigroup) took to mean the exact opposite.

Look at the company’s strategy, One Unilever, they said. It’s all about multinational power brands such as Axe/Lynx, Persil, Dove and Wall’s. What possible role could tiddly, if charismatic, brands like Marmite have in this? By way of justification, they pointed to various strategic disposals the company had been making around the world: Boursin in France, a Brazilian margarine company here and an American detergent company there. Second, they pointed to an inherent contradiction in running these highly localised brands out of a central organisation based in Rotterdam; meaning Chrysalis must be a short-term expedient. And third – the clincher – Unilever had deliberately segregated its minor brands into two categories. There were those – like Colman’s mustard and PG Tips – that remained in the main Unilever fold and then the rest – the black sheep so to speak – which had been hived off into Chrysalis.

So much for that theory: all the black sheep have now been herded back into the main fold  – under the name of Incs (Incorporated Businesses) – leading Investec analyst Martin Deboo (for one) to conclude ruefully that rumours of a sell-off were overcooked.

I’m not so sure. The obsession with a brands sale seems to have arisen from a partial misunderstanding of Chrysalis’ purpose in the first place. By the same token, its dissolution cannot be regarded as a guarantee the brands will remain in the long-term ownership of Unilever.

First, the creation and purpose of Chrysalis. Admittedly, in the past, these brands might have ended up in the hands of private equity companies. But by 2008, the date of Chrysalis’ origin, such funding was already becoming very tight. At one level, the unit was clearly intended to keep them financially afloat. It was equally apparent, however, that – put in the hands of semi-detached entrepreneurial managers – Chrysalis would serve as a nifty brand laboratory whose lessons could be imported into mainstream Unilever culture.

The man chosen to lead this alternative operating model was James Hill, who had a considerable track record behind him as first chairman and md of Lever UK, the Unilever detergent arm, and subsequently senior vice-president marketing operations Unilever Europe.

Whether under Hill’s leadership these 14 brands actually made significantly more money for Unilever I have no idea (but some doubts). More evidently, his brands did succeed in making a lot of positive media noise for big, boring Unilever and embarked on some interesting experiments.

Marmite is a good case in point. During Hill’s stewardship, the brand name has finally passed into the English language as a metaphor of sharply contrasted appeal. Marmite led the way (well, co-led it with HMV) in pioneering temporary “pop-shops”. These exploited high-profile retail premises left fallow by the recession to merchandise 100 Marmite-branded products, including food, clothes, art and even Christmas boxes.

I seem to remember Marmite also made skilful use of its brand personality to keep itself front of mind during the late, long-drawn-out, election with a “Love Party versus “Hate Party” campaign featured on a specially devised website, http://www.marmitenewsnetwork.com.

The Marmite campaign soon amassed some valuable political capital when Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, decided to do some passing off of the “Hate Party” – complete with hijacked Marmite logo – in his own political broadcast. Threat of legal action by Unilever not only forced a humiliating climbdown by Griffin, but caused him to lose his irreplaceable webmeister in the media furore that followed.

Enough of Marmite. Let’s also consider Peperami. The sado-masochistic salami brand created a bit of a sensation last year when its group marketing manager, Noam Buchalter, fired Lowe – its agency of 16 years – and solicited members of the public to come up with ideas for the next ad campaign. Crowdsourcing, as it is called, is increasingly trendy these days – a kind of marketing analogue of social media. Walkers used it to some effect recently when coming up with a new crisp flavour. What’s far less usual is to fire one’s ad agency in the process. This heinous act sparked an explosive debate in creative agency circles, the gist of it being that Unilever is a cheapskate, seeking to circumvent agency fees with inexpensive ideas sourced through the internet which achieve, at best, tepid success. We have yet to judge, in Peperami’s case. More importantly, however, the Peperami crowdsourcing episode was a first for Unilever which succeeded in capturing the attention of new chief marketing officer Keith Weed. One of Weed’s first initiatives on taking over from Simon Clift earlier this year was to approve a crowdsourcing drive for 13 of Unilever’s biggest brands, including Wall’s, Lynx and Dove involving the same $10,000 “bounty” for the lucky winner.

Weed has subsequently felt the need to back-pedal, and reassure agencies, on the issue of crowdsourcing. In an interesting and wide-ranging debate with WPP ceo Sir Martin Sorrell at Cannes (where Unilever was declared Advertiser of the Year) he had this to say:

“In general, I’m not going to use crowdsourcing as a substitute, with the exception of Peperami.” Consumer-generated ideas, he added, are merely a way of allowing Unilever to “pilot and test things”.

Which brings me to why Chrysalis was eventually ditched. At the beginning of this year, James Hill moved to another Unilever job, that of chairman of Italy. Buchalter has also quit, to become a consultant. It would be easy to surmise ‘writing on the wall’ here. I doubt that is the case, however. There is an exactness about Hill’s two-year term that suggests this was a valued Unilever “lifer” taking up a new turn of duty. More likely the closure has come about because the new top management team, led by ex-Procter & Gamble executive Paul Polman, couldn’t see Chrysalis’ long-term relevance. Indeed, Weed specifically referred during the Cannes debate to Polman’s decisive influence in making lines of communication with the consumer simpler and more direct. A complex hybrid operating system, and a business culture licensed to be irreverent, may have had no place in his thinking.

Does the dissolution of Chrysalis matter? In the short term, no. Matt Burgess, formerly managing director of Chrysalis UK, remains in charge of the Marmite, Bovril, Pot Noodle and Slim Fast brands as md of the new “integrated” unit Incs. I suspect, however, that some of the fizz has come out of the laboratory idea, that the future of the brands will be more pedestrian, and their value more meticulously cost-accounted.


Interpublic’s solution to Lowe London? A Wall of money

April 19, 2010

Who will put Lowe London out of its misery? The loss of its principal accounts seems an everlasting litany. To Stella Artois, John Lewis and Nokia N-Series should also be added the Beck’s account. All that’s propping Lowe London up is international business from Unilever (barring Peperami, which went last year) and Johnson & Johnson. According to Nielsen, 2009’s already depleted billings of £91m shrank to a minuscule £53m.

How to attract top talent in such circumstances – the talent that will draw in vital new business? It’s a vicious circle, from which there are only two ways for a once famous agency to extract itself. Call it a day, as Lowe alma mater CDP did long after it should have. Or buy something that will enthuse new talent and new enthusiasm.

Not surprisingly, it is the latter course that Lowe Worldwide chief Michael Wall has embarked upon. Evidence of his enthusiasm and determination may be deduced from approaches to Creston plc (owner of Delaney Lund Knox Warren); Rapier; and Dye Holloway Murray. So far, it would seem, the overtures have been unrequited. But we should not underestimate the charm of a man with an open cheque book in these straitened times; nor the forcefulness of someone who has managed to persuade cash-strapped Interpublic to cough up.


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