How advertising's big beasts are moving once-unfashionable marketing disciplines centre stage

Partners at Green Square, Corporate Finance Advisors to the media and marketing sector, cast their eyes over the latest industry deals and look ahead to the next tranche of acquisitions.

How times change! And with changing times come shifts in power.

Even five or 10 years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find many commentators waxing lyrical about direct marketing (DM), and even fewer willing to sing the praises of shopper marketing. Both disciplines were seen by certain sections of the marcomms community as slightly grubby, lacking the glamour and sheen of, say, TV advertising or all the newfangled digital stuff.

Commentators, particularly in the media, or those with an old Soho bias who imagine that it’s still the 1970s and CDP are still ruling the roost, were inclined to look down their noses as these two 'ugly sisters' – if they thought about them at all.

Of course, DM has always had a few famous cheerleaders. Two of the greats, David Ogilvy and the still-sprightly (at 94) Lester Wunderman, were passionate evangelists. And clients have always liked DM – it worked, and it was measurable, and unlike press, outdoor or TV, you pretty much knew who the stuff was going to.

But mainstream creatives (ie those in above-the-line) have always seemed to have thought it was just about envelope stuffing, mailshots and coupons. Unfair certainly, but it’s hard to deny that this was not (and may still be) a mindset among many in the creative community.

It’s hard to imagine probably the most consistently creative British shop of the last 30 years, Bartle Bogle & Hegarty (BBH), ever getting involved with grubby old DM. Or the famed Saatchi name dirtying its fingers with shopper marketing… but this is what’s been happening over the past fortnight or so.

BBH is of course most famous for the ads it created in the 1980s and 90s – brilliant campaigns for the likes of Johnnie Walker, Levi’s, Lynx and Audi ('Vorsprung durch Technik').

But in the past year it seems to have been reinventing itself as a DM agency, winning three of the biggest and most prestigious accounts in the business. (It’s worth pointing out that BBH once had a separate DM arm, whose name – Limbo – perhaps indicated management’s attitude to the medium.)

But DM is moving centre stage, complementing the agency’s above-the-line accounts. Last year BBH snaffled (most of) the British Airways DM account from the mighty OgilvyOne; then in February it got the Tesco ad account, and a good deal of the CRM account for good measure. Finally, last week it grabbed a sizeable chunk of the Barclaycard CRM business.

I’ve no idea what Sir John Hegarty, the genius behind those wonderfully-crafted Audi and Levi’s ads, makes of all this, but it’s certain that current BBH CEO Ben Fennell is very happy; this recent success has undoubtedly been good for business. It seems that the Publicis-owned agency’s enthusiasm for DM has been down to a change of attitude (after all, networks like WPP’s OgilvyOne and Omnicom’s Proximity and Rapp became huge on the back of DM and CRM) and from a partnership with Seven Seconds, a consultancy set up by two longstanding DM legends, Simon Hall and Warren Moore.

It’s also hard to imagine M&C Saatchi – the agency set up by Maurice and Charles in 1995 which created truly iconic campaigns for the likes of British Airways – “getting involved with shelf wobblers” until fairly recently. But earlier this month, the AIM-listed firm announced that it would be setting up an – as yet unnamed – agency to handle shopper marketing duties by the autumn of this year. The agency will be headed up by the highly-rated Michelle Whelan, who previously ran Arc, part of the Leo Burnett network. She has a wealth of experience in shopper marketing, having ran accounts for blue-chips like Tesco, P&G, Cadbury, Samsung, Sony, VW, L’Oreal and EA Games.

Now as I said earlier, shopper marketing, like DM, gets a bit of a bad rap. As anyone involved in the craft will tell you, it’s about an awful lot more than shelf wobblers, or even in-store marketing activity in general. But the old misconceptions persist, perhaps driven by snobbery more than fact.

As with DM, it seems that a previously unfashionable discipline is emerging from the shadows as it becomes more relevant; truth is, shopper marketing is an absolutely crucial medium in our modern world. It’s about understanding how a particular set of consumers behave in a shopping environment (be it in-store or online) and using this intelligence to improve that environment’s effectiveness.

With that sort of definition, rather than the misleading “retail/point-of-sale/shelf edge wobbler” tags, it’s clear that shopper marketing is a discipline which impacts on all manner of marcomms, and whose importance is likely to increase. As the saying goes, “[these days] every channel is shoppable”, and understanding why, how, where and when people shop is going to be informing decisions the whole length of the chain, from strategy through to creative.

Of the big networks, WPP is perhaps furthest along the line with The Store, its “one stop” shopper marketing practice which includes the likes of Kantar, Dialogue, Fitch, Landor, Wunderman and Geometry, working in areas from research through to branding and design.

Staking out a similar claim by connecting data, mobile, social, experiential and creative technology is a huge opportunity for a firm like M&C, which needs to look at new revenue streams if it is to both grow and sustain its independence.

When it comes to building business, fashionability, or lack of it, should be the least of one’s concerns, as both M&C and BBH are demonstrating.

Andrew Moss is a partner at Green Square, corporate finance advisors to the media and marketing sector

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