The long-serving orchestrator of John Lewis’ legendary advertising is set to depart next month. The news comes as a major blow to a marketing team already questioning what the future holds after the incoming ‘head of brand’ for the Partnership departed before even starting.
Customer director Craig Inglis joined the high-street retailer 12 years ago and set about a titanic shift in its marketing strategy, putting the focus on big-ticket creative ideas. In the process, he established an annual moment in British culture around John Lewis' famed Christmas adverts.
However, his role at the organisation has been under a spotlight of late. Just four months ago, in the wake of a £26m pre-tax loss, bosses announced a C-suite restructure that would bring the marketing for both the John Lewis and Waitrose brands together under Paula Nickolds as executive director of brand. Where Inglis would fit in this masterplan was left undecided and the future of his role was being looked at in a consultation process which remains ongoing.
Then in a shock move mere weeks after the re-org was revealed, Nickolds announced she was leaving before she’d even started.
Given his lengthy tenure, Inglis might have been a reasonable consideration to take the vacant place as head of the joint brands. But when he walks away in just eight weeks Martin George, currently customer director at Waitrose, will find himself the company's most senior marketer.
“It has been an honour to work for the John Lewis Partnership with its two extraordinary brands, which I am confident will go on from strength-to-strength,” said Inglis on his exit. “I’ve had an amazing journey over the last 12 years and I feel now is the right time for me to try something new outside the Partnership."
And so questions are now being asked over what the brand's critical strategy to rebuild after a year of dismal sales will look like.
The Inglis impact
When Inglis joined in 2008, John Lewis was facing a number of issues. Amid "deteriorating conditions" at the time, its underlying profits were down that year by 26%. The brand's perception was also in need of improvement.
“Before he joined, John Lewis was seen as a bit posh, pretty aloof, and not for everyone,” recalls Neil Henderson, chief executive at advertising agency St Lukes, which works for retailers like Very.
Inglis’ action plan was to sort out its creative output. Within a year he made the risky move of appointing Adam&Eve DDB (then a plucky start-up in the agency scene) as its advertising partner and set about an overhaul of the approach. The focus was taken away from pushing product and instead Inglis championed emotional, thoughtful, storytelling based around the long-running brand promise of ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’.
“He put power in the brand,” added Henderson. “He transformed it.”
This was particularly evident in its Christmas advertising strategy, which delivered now unforgettable spots like 'The Long Wait', 'The Bear and the Hare', and last year’s 'Excitable Edgar'. It was so effective that blowing the marketing budget on a festive tear-jerker is a tactic now emulated by CMOs across all manner of brands. But amid the creative copy-cats and the relentless pressure traditional retailers were facing, the strategy arguably lost its lustre.
"The brand’s modern storytelling had the incredible bedrock of 'Never Knowingly Undersold'. But in the age of ‘total retail’; when shoppers have access to what they want, when they want at the best price they are motivated to find, it is no longer the totem it was," says Rob Sellers, chief growth officer at Grey London which has counted Marks & Spencer among its clients.
"And in that absence, like so many of its high street peers, John Lewis is yet another retailer who has become ‘stuck in the middle’; neither delivering on price, range and convenience such as Amazon or Next, or providing the heightened experiences that takes modern shopping into the realms of entertainment. Shopping at John Lewis doesn’t seem to have changed much for a generation, but this generation of shoppers are completely different."
According to data supplied to The Drum by YouGov, John Lewis’ ‘Brand Buzz’ scores (which reveal how the nation feels about a company, positive or negative) have been in steady decline since hitting a peak in 2012.
“Inglis’ departure is a stark reminder to us all that ‘brand’ is only part of the marketing puzzle for retailers trying to navigate the rapid change in their industry,” Sellers continues.
“Without his commitment to creativity and cultural fame, John Lewis may very easily have spiralled rapidly into obsolescence like so many other bastions of British retail. He has absolutely placed it into the heart of British culture, especially at Christmas. More so than any brand in the country, and for that he should be rightly lauded as a brave and visionary client. But maybe, just maybe, the pressure of delivering a blockbuster ad year after year has distracted from some of the root and branch fixes that are facing John Lewis.”
What next for John Lewis' baffled marketing team?
The remaining marketing team now find themselves in a position of waiting to see what the future holds. A spokesperson said that recruitment to replace Nickolds as executive director of brand is not yet underway. Instead, that will be a decision for Sharon White when she replaces Charlie Mayfield as chairman later this year.
For now, the team reports into Waitrose marketer Martin George.
In the short term, the timing of Inglis’ resignation is troublesome. As St Luke’s Henderson points out, creatives across ad land are in the midst of preparing Christmas advertising briefs. These briefs will be getting signed off and the massive undertaking of preparing for retail's most critical time of the year will be well under way this month.
"I don't know its timings would have thought there would be in script development now, with a view to it being signed off in early March. Christmas isn't just an advert, it's an immense production across so many channels. There's a pressure to get the merchandise produced and that drives the timing. So they are right in the thick of it," he says.
But longer-term the exits are a major blow for the incoming White and she will need to recruit quickly, and well, when she takes her seat.
“The challenges that the partnership faces are really significant from the changed dynamic of the shopper to the structure of costs to operate on the high street,” adds Catherine Shuttleworth, founder of retail consultancy Savvy.
“A great customer director is critical to steering the organisation through these choppy waters. It’s fair to say that his departure leaves a gaping hole in the business.”
Whomever the new chairman brings in will have to quickly get their feet under the table. If it's an outside hire, the first year might simply a case of getting through the current retail calendar unscathed.
But in time, they will undoubtedly want to make their own mark on the iconic brand. Faced with addressing the kinds of challenges that John Lewis has, it's possible that any new marketing boss may quickly throw out the tried-and-tested model, draw a line under their predecessor’s legacy, and in the process the reliance on the Adam&Eve aesthetic.
Inglis’ strong relationship with the agency was often the subject of industry fanfare – so much so that adland’s rumour mill went into overdrive in 2018 when the departure of co-founders James Murphy and David Golding to set up their own shop bore speculation that the John Lewis marketer might join them.
And so the agency will also be waiting with bated breath to know its fate if – and when – new brand bosses for its longest-serving client are ushered in.
"We're now in a very different place with retail going through such a hard time, the pressure on a new marketing director to find a new way will be big," says Henderson.
"There will be a lot of questioning if the [emotional, blockbuster advertising] is the right approach now. And if you're the agency you have to be up for investigating that. Agencies that stick with what they've done in the past don't last long. It is an interesting moment."