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Priorities for Paula Nickolds as she takes over John Lewis and Waitrose marketing


By Jennifer Faull, Deputy Editor

October 4, 2019 | 8 min read

As of next February, John Lewis and Waitrose will have a new marketing boss in Paula Nickolds.


Paula Nickolds

Nickolds is a retail veteran. She joined John Lewis in 1994 on its graduate programme and has risen through the ranks – from buying director for Home, to buying and brand director, then commercial director – to eventually be named the first ever female managing director of the high street retailer in 2017.

But her most recent promotion will also be among her biggest challenges. As of February she will become executive director of brand where she have responsibility for marketing, service and digital innovation across John Lewis and Waitrose.

It comes amid a radical overhaul to merge the two brands under a streamlined, single, management team as opposed to separate food and non-food divisions. It’s the John Lewis Partnership’s solution to a troubling £26m loss it suffered in the first half of the year.

“…we need more innovation, faster decision making and bolder steps to align our operating model with our strategy,” said chairman Sir Charlie Mayfield on the move, which will see the culling of around one in three head office jobs.

It’s unlikely to phase Nickolds, who helped the retailer navigate the financial crash in 2008 which claimed many other retailers.

In an interview with the Evening Standard a few years later she said she wasn’t afraid to make “counterintuitive decisions” during that tumultuous period. “I’m not a natural defeatist and tried to hold morale up when it almost seemed whatever you did wasn’t going to move the dial… We opened space when others were closing and trialled new formats,” she said.


Aiding in this exploration phase will be Craig Ingles, who has run marketing for John Lewis as customer director. It’s believed he’ll continue in that role across both brands – though he will not be immune during the consultation period over the next few months as bosses decide which jobs will go – but he will work less on marketing. Instead his focus will be the ‘Future’ Partnership agenda and how that translates into the brand experience.

Though never having held a traditional ‘marketing’ role, Nickolds is no stranger to the task of delivering the tear-jerking creative that John Lewis is famed for. During her tenure as brand director she was responsible for 2014’s ‘Monty the Penguin’ Christmas ad and 2015’s ‘Man on the Moon’ creative.

Speculation of changes to agency rosters inevitably follow a shake-up in a marketing department. The decision to split the marketing departments in rival M&S into food and non-food, for example, resulted the Clothing advertising account being pulled out of Grey in March. But, long-standing agency Adam&Eve DDB will take comfort in having already worked with Nickolds throughout her career and, crucially, already managing the Waitrose advertising (it won it in 2015 after BBH resigned to pick up Tesco).

The big-picture objective, then, will be delivering that iconic marketing in a way that unites both companies and encourages people to shop year-round, online and offline, in a market that getting tougher by the day. The groundwork this was laid long before this week’s restructure announcement; last year the two launched their first joint campaign which at the time Ingles said "reinforces" how different it is compared with other retailers.

But there has been little joint activity of note since the blockbuster Bohemian Rhapsody-themed ad hit screens over a year ago. And so come next year Nickolds will have to turbo charge this by embracing new technology and galvanising a united, streamlined, marketing department.

“People already understand the John Lewis Waitrose Partnership so the combination will make sense [to consumers]. A unique internal structure and culture shared across the partnership – equally admired by public – should serve customers well. An enviable start point for any marketing initiative,” said Michelle Whelan, chief executive at Geometry UK, an agency which counts Boots and Tesco among its largely retail clients.

“My take is that this is an opportunity. Here is a chance to approach the role in start-up mindset; Change legacy systems, invest in new martech to deliver hyper-personalisation, hyper-localisation. Fire-up marketing with this powerful blended brand to pivot the organisation to become fit for the future and drive scale.”

Figure out the grocery sector – fast

Looking to the future, John Lewis Partnership will face growing competition from companies like Amazon-Whole Foods-Morrisons, Ocado-M&S, and Sainsburys-Argos-Habitat to name a few. The restructure is partly aimed at helping battle these new forms of competition.

And so Nickolds will have to quickly get to grips with an industry she’s had little experience of. Grocery is a different beast to the more predictable pace of high-street fashion and she'll be learning the ropes in what is arguably the most competitive market in the world under the biggest strain of the past decade.

“The John Lewis department store model of selling high value items at relatively low frequency in large city centre locations and online requires a very different operating platform than its opposite number Waitrose operating in high turnover, low margin goods with a complex supply chain requiring refrigeration and frozen space,” explained Catherine Shuttlewoth, chief executive at Savvy, a retail consultancy.

“The new slimmed down executive has one trading director responsible for both businesses that means they will be responsible for the buying of tomatoes to TVs and Granny Smith apples to Apple watches.”

Nickolds, at a very basic level, will have to adapt to the “reverse-seasonality” approach that grocery brands have to marketing.

Ray Gaul, SVP of Retail Insights at Kantar explained: “Fashion and home retailers like John Lewis will have clearly defined Summer and Winter collections with well-organised weekly plans stretching out over two years to hit the right tones.

“[But] grocery retailers often must react in real-time to conditions that can spin out of control such as a vegetable supply crisis in Spain or a horse-meat scandal in frozen foods. “

They will also have overlapping seasons where getting Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Chinese New Year in and out of the stores at the same time will be a major operational challenge.

Gaul added that the soon-to-be brand boss will also have learn the nuances of local marketing, and quickly get Waitrose store managers and partners on her side.

“Grocery retailers are notoriously local when it comes to getting messages to the public,” he said. “This means Paula will have to work more closely with store managers, local community partners, and others to get the ‘we are your community shop’ message ringing loudly and clearly. The shift from a national marketing campaign message to localized and high frequency messages will require some attention.”

Nickolds’ first battle in the grocery war will be to bounce back from Ocado ending its contract with Waitrose in favour of M&S Food. She will need to convince Ocado customers to migrate to, “something even the most experienced grocery marketing expert would be grappling with,” remarked Shuttleworth.

Embrace Partners

The merger comes at time when traditional retail is feeling real pain. Consumer habits have changed, nocturnal shopping alone has increased 23% in the last year, and with tightening squeeze on disposable income, footfall and spending power have decreased. According to recent research, nearly 3,000 shops shut on UK high streets in the first half of this year with Karen Millen and Caost among some of the major casualties.

Independent retailers have been bucking this trend. A study from Visa earlier this year suggested that there was a 4.5% rise in the number of openings in 2018 compared with 2017.

Where John Lewis has an advantage is in delivering better service through its employee-owned model. “Crucially, [Nickolds should] continue to put people at the heart of this extraordinary human-centric business where Partnerships are the key to success," surmised Whelan. "Explore new ways to galvanise and motivate people across the organisation.”


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