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Marketing Ad Spend Brand Strategy

John Lewis never knowingly under-advertised, but it’ll take more than ads to save it

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By Hannah Bowler | Senior Reporter

February 13, 2023 | 9 min read

After 14 years, the retailer has parted ways with Adam&EveDDB. As it embarks on finding a replacement, what challenges wait in store for its next agency?

John Lewis 'Monty The Penguin' Christmas ad from 2014

John Lewis 'Monty The Penguin' Christmas ad from 2014

Adam&EveDDB has decided not to repitch after John Lewis Partnership put its ad account up for review. Tammy Einav, who is chief executive officer at the agency, says her team is “saddened” that the retailer has called a pitch, but that they are “grateful for the opportunity to create work that has been so loved”.

In a statement to the press, meanwhile, Charlotte Lock, customer director for John Lewis and Waitrose, said Adam&Eve has “played a prominent role in the popularity” of John Lewis’s campaigns. “Like all businesses, it’s important we review our supplier relationships, including those we have with our key agency partners,” she added.

The split comes at a time when John Lewis isn’t in the rudest financial health. The group posted a nearly £100m loss in the first half of 2022, compared with a £52m loss in the same period the year before. Waitrose’s sales were 5% down like-for-like in 2021, while John Lewis’s sales were marginally up 3% like-for-like in 2021.

As Harbour strategy partner Kev Chesters sees it, the troubles the brand faces aren’t going anywhere and not even advertising can dig it out of the hole it is in. “The world is only going to get tougher out there for traditional retailers and there’s no way any client will be able to advertise their way out of the challenges. I’m not sure anyone from Bill Bernbach to Harry Potter could weave a spell to solve the multitude of challenges facing high street retailers right now. Certainly, no ad agency can.”

Health of the John Lewis brand in 2023

Paul Mallon, the head of special ops at Lucky Generals, points to one major problem for John Lewis: nobody is sure what it stands for any more, he says. “The magic of its advertising doesn’t particularly come through in its retail experience or its products. Maybe it’s a hoary old problem of struggling to bring your brand from those ads through to the customer experience at the shop level or online.”

Looking back at the previous five years of data YouGov has on the company shows that John Lewis’s brand health has only slightly dipped, from 42.1 points to 41.3 points. However, awareness of its ads has fallen from 37.9 points to 34.3 and its perceived value score has also dropped, from 17.8 to 15.5. Its score for quality has remained consistent at around the 57.5 mark.

For Claire Humphris, chief executive officer of Iris, one reason is that its advertising got stuck in a tried and tested formula. “Yes, we are all aware of John Lewis, but are any of us really sure where it sits in our hierarchy of brands? Is it inspirational? Is it everyday? It says it is for life’s moments.”

She says the retailer has been “overly reliant” on TV and big creative moments, and questions why it hasn’t been present on consumers’ social feeds. “I’m not seeing its products through influencers – there are no culture-shaping moments.”

Despite John Lewis being known for “excellent” customer service, Humphris says that she as a consumer doesn’t feel invited into the conversation. “And as we have all learned from recent trends, it’s only when a consumer is participating in the conversation that they are really going to part with cash.”

Richard Clark meanwhile says the “quality and importance” of John Lewis’s TV campaigns have “diminished”. The former chief marketing officer of Sephora explains that “as audiences evolve, media consumption has evolved along with it and huge TV productions are less important”. Instead, he says, connection to the audience is far more essential. He urges John Lewis and whoever its new agency partner ends up being to build a multi-channel strategy that “ensures content and campaigns are real and relevant to the customer”.

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Diversifying away from retail

Department stores have had a rough few years, including the collapse of Debenhams and House of Fraser. To ensure long-term survival, John Lewis now plans to get 40% of profits from outside of retail by 2030.

Transitioning into a property owner is one of its plans, with 10,000 new rental homes scheduled to be built in ex-Waitrose stores in Bromley and West Ealing in Greater London, as well as replacing a vacant John Lewis warehouse in Reading.

The ambition is for John Lewis to furnish the properties with its stock, to have cafes in the apartment blocks selling Waitrose food, and it has even been suggested that on-site gyms that would have John Lewis equipment and towels. As Rob Sellers, head of retail at VCCP, puts it: “With so much chat about it almost becoming a property owner versus a retailer, maybe that changes the need or role of advertising for the whole business.”

John Lewis’s strategy is in direct contrast to Marks & Spencer, which has recently unveiled plans to add 20 new stores – five clothing and homeware, with the rest being dedicated food halls.

Interestingly, M&S is poised to overtake John Lewis by the end of the year in the rankings of top UK retailers. A forecast by Retail Week says that by reducing its store portfolio, John Lewis is cutting off its customers and making it heavily reliant on online sales – which is at odds with the fact footfall has returned to high streets.

Christmas strategy needs a refresh

A lot of industry talk around the split has been about John Lewis’s Christmas strategy – and how it might be time for a fresh take. Adam&Eve and John Lewis really birthed the Christmas advert category in the UK, with their tried and tested formula of tear-jerking moments that look beyond products.

Matt Charlton, chief executive officer at Brothers & Sisters, urges John Lewis to instead prioritize creating an enduring idea that builds up over time, rather than face the pressure to reinvent a new idea each year. “Before it clicked with Christmas, John Lewis just did a few print campaigns every year. It has continued to over-invest in its brand more than any other company in the UK – and it’s clear it’s not enough to return it back to profit. So it needs new ideas, probably around both creative and marketing efficiency.”

Ryan Lacey, the head of content at Pitch Marketing, meanwhile adds: “Someone wise once said ’an ad is not just for Christmas’. It doesn’t surprise me that there has been a rethink. The sheer amount of time, energy and money that goes into the ’big event’ each year is huge. And for what? It’s time-limited.”

Instead, he says, there are lessons that can be learned from the Super Bowl. “Maybe because it isn’t tied to ’Christmas’ it has become bigger, more enduring, and stayed relevant for brands as they can continue these campaigns through the year. It might be time to rethink the big ad for Christmas and create something that is relevant all year round.”

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