M&S brings search in-house amid plan to join up marketing and merchandising

The brand's 2018 Christmas campaign fronted by Holly Willoughby, while successful, meant popularity had execeded expectations / Marks & Spencer

Marks & Spencer (M&S) is building an in-house SEO team as it continues in its mission to better connect the dots between marketing and its own supply chain.

The move will see M&S’ global SEO account moved out of Hearst’s specialist search agency iCrossing and into the British retailer’s four walls.

As part of the shakeup, M&s is also putting paid search (PPC) up for pitch. The Drum understands that, as the three-year incumbent, iCrossing has been invited to pitch for this part of the business.

"As we transform M&S, how we communicate with our customers, especially through digital channels, is more important than ever before,” said Jane Stiller, head of customer channels for M&S.

“As part of this transformation we’re excited to be maximising the search marketing opportunity by creating an in-house SEO function and also reviewing the paid search market,” she added, saying more detail would be shared in the coming months.

It’s understood that iCrossing will work on the SEO account until April before it's removed from the account. While M&S wouldn't reveal the value of the business, the brief is believed to be one of the agency's most significant. When approached by The Drum iCrossing declined to comment on the news.

Bringing merchandise and marketing closer

The play from M&S follows on from its chief executive Steve Rowe saying that its shift to a more product-led Christmas campaign in 2018 fronted by Holly Willoughby, while successful, meant popularity had execeded expectations.

He said that the overall business had to "do more" to ensure it was taking advantage of sales spikes.

“Availability is still one of the key challenges in the business,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to improve the supply chain. In both areas of the advertised lines we didn’t fulfill the potential we had."

He added: "I’m delighted with the reaction to both advertising campaigns – particularly the 'Must Haves' – but we’ve got to do more and make sure we’ve got enough of the merchandise [in-store] when we’re advertising it," suggesting there was an internal push to bring merchandising and marketing closer in line.

The catalyst for all this internal change over the past 12 months was M&S' decision to ditch the top-down structure that had been led by now-departed group chief marketing officer Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne in favour of separate clothing and food functions, led by Nathan Ansell and Sharry Cramond respectively, who report into divisional managing directors.

Speaking to The Drum last year, the marketers were acutely aware of the challenge of ensuring that the hero-products it was advertising, both online and offline, were available in-store.

They said they were having “hourly calls” with merchandise teams and store managers to ensure they had availability.

After M&S became one of the first brands to use Instagram's 'Shopping' feature, the store faced criticism from consumers than many of the items of clothing that it’s featured on Instagram, or that are featured by influencers, sold out almost instantly online, are slow to be replenished, and are difficult to find in-store.

To wrangle control of the phenomena, the marketing and merchandising teams were brought closer together - sitting alongside each other in the office alongside agency partners, like Grey London for creative and Mindshare for media.

By bringing search in-house, M&S could scale up up these efforts, allowing the brand to quickly react to trends it's seeing online and in its own supply chain.

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