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In-housing creative: a smart move by M&S or grave mistake?

In-housing creative: a smart move by M&S or grave mistake?

It’s no secret that high street darling Marks and Spencer (M&S) has struggled in recent years, then the pandemic caused “seismic upheaval” according to boss Steve Rowe. To stem this, as of April, M&S Foods will in-house creative, ending a long-term contract with Grey, in lieu of a project-based relationship. Neil Godber, joint head of planning at Wunderman Thompson UK reflects on this decision.

In today’s value-conscious world, more marketing activity is defined by and tied to the distribution channels they support, performance comms are more closely driven by data signals and creative is quickly optimised.

With this in mind, it’s understandable that if Marks and Spencer (M&S) is not seeing the value, it reassesses its ongoing agency relationships to only outsource for certain projects, as and when the need arises.

Given that only one of the range of benefits will be cost efficiency, the new working practice is also feted to bring greater agility and flexibility to M&S, using a wider range of external partners directly.

As a result, Grey appears to be used for special projects which demand high levels of conceptual creativity, such as the challenge of breaking through at Christmas or Easter, or when existing campaigns have run out of road and need a new idea to set a new course for the next 18 to 24 months.

If this is the case, it represents a depressing narrowness of what M&S believes that Grey (or other agencies) can do that they cannot: individual high impact creative campaigns.

From the point of view that agencies can bring impactful creativity to generate disproportionate effects across all the different ways a business generates value for its customers, it’s a shame that Grey is not working throughout the M&S brand and business.

Applying the power of creativity to boost the impact of a whole range of different areas for a business that relies on repeat visits, involved experiences or multi-channel reach that is in need of creativity to help drive it forwards.

As a starter for ten, there will be great opportunities to create rich vivid enduring experiences and meaning to customers, whether shopping for Mother’s Day, milk or just spending some ‘me’ time browsing. The pressure on value means fresh thinking should be brought to invigorate and reframe the rounds and rounds and rounds of promotions.

There lies the opportunity to apply behavioural science and external perspectives to make the cards and loyalty clubs feel like genuine clubs you want to belong to. Once you’ve shopped, how about bringing design to making that wobbly walk back to the car more of a triumph. I’d love to see what Thomas Heatherwick would do with a car park to make people want to do a victory lap or feel more like a carpet. All this and stacks more must be ripe for creative impact. To that end, I hope that these areas of their business will not be ignored and their opportunity to build the M&S brand and drive behaviour overlooked.

Beyond the opportunity to use agencies to build value into the total M&S experience, there is a real risk to the brand by using a wider variety of one-off project partners. Often unacknowledged but slowly, gradually felt is the creeping fragmentation of the brand as it’s delivered through wider numbers of often discrete media channels, customer touchpoints, routes to market and customer data points that demand to be listened to. This dangerous effect can be multiplied and magnified by engaging a series of short-term one-off partners. The partners will do a great job, but in pursuing impact can pull the brand in different directions, diluting and weakening the status, role and meaning of M&S than it could be.

Using a series of individual short-term partners is beneficial to get a huge push for a one-off project, but agencies often add a lot of value when they work longer-term with the brand. Partners engaged in the longer-term develop a deeper appreciation and purview of their clients’ businesses, they understand where the opportunities are, making them far more proactive in finding ways to help clients win beyond the immediate project brief and spot ways to bring different areas of the business together in ways that wouldn’t be otherwise possible. It’s trite to call it a side-effect, but nonetheless, longer-term partners can often provide more ideas that are more deeply embedded in the business, market and consumers culture if given time.

Neil Godber is joint head of planning at Wunderman Thompson UK

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