Can a little creativity help turn around Tesco? A look at what lies in store for its new agency BBH

As the troubled supermarket chain embarks on a fresh journey with the newly appointed BBH, Gillian West takes a look at whether creativity can herald Tesco’s turnaround and whether a new approach to advertising is enough to erase the memory of a year best forgotten.

There was a time Tesco could do no wrong. Profits grew year-on-year, share prices rocketed and global expansion was high on the retailer’s agenda. Fast forward to 2015 however and the supermarket behemoth is playing a rather different tune.

Falling sales, a plummeting share price and the small matter of a £250m accounting black hole have plagued the brand over the last 12 months, and hopes are now pinned on newly installed chief executive Dave Lewis turning around the ailing retailer.

During the festive season when Aldi and Lidl’s Christmas advertising campaigns were inviting the world and its wife to spend Christmas with them and offering up ‘Lidl Surprises’, Tesco was off holding talks with BBH London, readying a move of its £110m advertising account from incumbent Wieden+Kennedy.

Neil Munn, the chief executive of BBH London who has known Lewis for the best part of 20 years having previously worked with him during his time at Unilever, tells The Drum the first conversation happened “just before Christmas”.

“We had a social catch-up and Dave asked me whether we would be interested in potentially working with Tesco,” he says. “At that point I declined because we had a very strong relationship with Waitrose, but then the conversation unravelled over a period of four weeks.”

When the move was officially announced mid-January, Wieden+Kennedy chief executive Neil Christie said Tesco’s decision had come as “no surprise” to him, but it left many asking whether a new agency relationship was enough to turn the brand’s fortunes around.

Munn unsurprisingly remains tight-lipped over what to expect from Tesco’s new direction with BBH, but notes customers will notice a difference in its creative. “What that exactly looks like at the moment I don’t know... What I’m hoping is that we can help heighten the profile of Tesco once we officially start.”

How will the agency’s experience transfer to Tesco? The fundamentals, according to Munn, will be bringing in a “big organising idea that gives everyone a sense of purpose” and translates across all parts of the customer journey.

Dave Monk, the deputy executive creative director at Grey London who’s also ex-BBH, wonders if the agency behind brands such as Lynx, KFC and British Airways could be the one to help Tesco “bang the dents out of its bean cans”.

“Creativity, cleverly spent, can work wonders. It’s amazing how a single tweet can change things these days,” explains Monk, referencing Sainsbury’s ‘giraffe bread’ as one good example of how transparent tactics can have a huge impact. “People loved the brand for that.”

According to Dare’s chief executive officer Leigh Thomas, “creativity can certainly help, but the challenge is monumental”. She believes customer experience rather than creativity was really the key to the brand’s original success.

“‘Every Little Helps’ encapsulated Tesco’s superior customer experience, but it would have been a hollow brand promise without the real innovations made both in-store and in terms of product sourcing and distribution strategies... the role of advertising was simply and elegantly to communicate that experience.”

With Munn commenting that it’s “too soon” to speculate on the future of the famous ‘Every Little Helps’ brand promise, Rebecca Moody, the chief strategy officer at Ogilvy & Mather London who worked on the Tesco account during its heyday with ‘Dotty’, argues that a return to the service initiatives it prompted would stand in the supermarket’s favour.

“Fundamentally it has lost touch with the British consumer. It was a real barometer of Britain and it lost this in the late 90s, early 00s,” she says, adding that Tesco’s success was based on being the market leader, but somewhere along the way “that pioneering spirit has been lost”.

With both adland and the grocery sector anticipating the next step in the partnership, Munn insists the agency is not fazed by the challenge ahead: “There’s a lot of responsibility and it’s high-profile, but that’s what we want as a business.” Currently working its three-month notice period with Waitrose, the agency officially kicks off in April and until then is “starting to gain an idea of the business,” according to Munn.

“As part of Dave Lewis’ turnaround agenda everything is moving at a reasonably brisk pace. I don’t know the exact timescales we’ll have quite yet but as an agency partner one will have to march to the beat of the client and Tesco is stepping up its pace at the moment.

“One works within the timeframes one is given. You give an agency six months, they’ll take six months, if you give an agency six weeks they’ll take six weeks,” he laughs, clearly in good spirits for the task.

It’s a confidence that matches the agency’s credentials. Getting into bed with a company that boasts more ‘agency of the year’ awards and more knights than any other could be the jump Tesco needs to get back into the public’s good graces. Or, in Moody’s words, if creativity is going to save Tesco, BBH has a pretty good shot.

“If you want to get to the heart of the British people they’re probably best placed to do it,” she says. “No one’s cracked supermarket advertising post-recession and there must be a point of differentiation out there waiting to happen – who knows, maybe BBH has got it.”

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