Advertising won't fix your problems

A campaign can only really deliver when the promise of the work matches the reality of the brand. Marks & Spencer, take note.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the stories we tell as an industry are so neatly packaged. That’s the primary skillset of so many of its component players, after all: creative agencies especially. Our case studies, told after the event, make beautiful sense and speak to our powers. Campaigns transform brand fortunes and can even win elections. 

Except, of course, that life is messier than that and it is marketing in the round – the successful orientation of a business around customer and competitor – rather than "marketing as messaging" that tends to win the day. That’s especially true in service businesses: where brand meaning is largely shaped by experience rather than by comms or, at best, by the self-reinforcing dance of the two. 

Dave Lewis’ guidance was as precise as it was correct: you can’t advertise your way out of something you’ve behaved your way into

Viewed dispassionately, elections, meanwhile – for all the battle buses, poster unveilings and endless comparisons of strategies and slogans – are another, more periodical, reminder that communication is just one part of a much bigger picture. 

Advertising’s influence on political fortunes was a bone of contention at pollster BritainThinks’ most recent evening salon. Debating various "campaigns that shook the world", irrepressible adman Mark Lund and his fellow believers were kept in check by astringent political commentator Daniel Finkelstein. "Most elections are settled by the fundamentals," Finkelstein decreed, before going on to concede: "Good campaigns exist in and take power from these." 

That distinction between the fundamentals and the froth – or, more generously, between the reality and the promise – struck home to me in the week that Marks & Spencer unveiled its "radical" new advertising campaign and more discreetly announced the recruitment of Jill McDonald to turn around its non-food business. The former stole the headlines but the real story was the latter, because – as most observers agree – M&S doesn’t have an advertising problem but something much deeper in "non-food". Too much space, too many poorly defined sub-brands, too little great product. 

For years now, M&S has been a tired clothing business tethered to a well-positioned and well-executed food business. A nice museum being dragged along by its ace caff. That telling descriptor "non-food" is perhaps all you need to know.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the new campaign and especially the continuity of the food executions (the bit the advertising village is less giddy about). For the first time in ages, I can see the join between those two brand halves: the one "steady and stable", the other apparently directionless. To the extent that advertising can unite the offering perceptually, or perhaps even organisationally, that’s great.

But the problem is that people don’t shop in the ads. (Not yet, anyway.) People shop in the shops, and here the problems remain. So I find myself saying "no" to the advertising relaunch, however spirited, and "yes" to the new blood being hired to fix the real problem. Because in the words of my wife on seeing the new campaign: "Well, it only works if the products match the mantra. And they don’t."

M&S: is it the advertising, or the product behind it, that wasn’t really working?

I blame those neat case studies. The ones that claim for advertising alone the brilliant execution of the fundamentals also. In fact, the best advertising stories often betray something much deeper: advertising works hardest when built on the concrete foundations of good product rather than the quicksand of bad. It is weighed alongside wider brand experience, knowledge and memories even as it is being consumed, with what Charles Saatchi called the "inner nod" of agreement with its premise constituting the advertiser’s real prize. 

Witness Tesco, another brand we Brits periodically love to bash. Its advertising suddenly looks a little more sure-footed, just as the store experience does. Coincidence? I suggest not. Dave Lewis’ guidance to shareholders and marketers when he took the reins was as precise as it was correct: you can’t advertise your way out of something you’ve behaved your way into. To make material progress, M&S – like Tesco – must improve the inside of the brand, not just its outside. It’s a bonus that "the work" will then work harder.

"Good campaigns exist in and take power from the fundamentals." In the Curious Case of the Non-Food Business, the non-adman might just have nailed it.

Laurence Green is the founding partner of 101.

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