Sainsbury's is taste of things to come for media shops

Sainsbury's is taste of things to come for media shops

Sometimes an account move has wider implications. So it is with M/SIX's snatching of Sainsbury's £100m media business.

Winning and losing pitches is part of agency life, but sometimes an account move has wider implications.

So it is with M/SIX’s snatching of Sainsbury’s £100m media business – a consolidation of the Sainsbury’s and Argos accounts.

Even in retail, where most of the big UK supermarkets have changed agencies in the past two years in the face of digital disruption, the decision by Sainsbury’s came as a shock. That’s because, unlike the supermarket’s ad review last year, this media pitch was held in secret.

Omnicom’s PHD had been the incumbent on Sainsbury’s for 22 years and produced strong work. "Sharing the gift of reading at Christmas" was one of the most-awarded campaigns in the world in 2016, according to this week’s Gunn Report for Media.

Mindshare was the incumbent on Argos but also looks after Marks & Spencer, so it stepped back in favour of M/SIX, which is part-owned by WPP.

Running a "closed" pitch meant Sainsbury’s could move faster to integrate Argos and make savings.

However, it wasn’t just about pricing. Observers assume M/SIX must have used Group M’s trading muscle to undercut PHD, but two of Group M’s big beasts, MediaCom and Maxus, tried unsuccessfully to win Sainsbury’s when it last reviewed media in 2015.

Changing media agency looks to be part of a shift in strategy, with a greater focus on digital and data and Sainsbury’s "non-food" business. The top marketers at both Sainsbury’s and Argos have left recently.

It’s clear M/SIX read the situation better and it has two advantages. First, it is part of Johnny Hornby’s nimble The & Partnership, which allows the agency to draw on expertise in areas such as creative, data and social. CHI & Partners, M/SIX’s sister shop, already handles creative for Argos and has impressed the client with its data and social smarts in the war against Amazon.

Second, M/SIX is a young agency, founded only in 2007, which means it has always put digital and data first, without worrying about a "legacy" business.

There are still questions to be asked. M/SIX is small. How will it cope with handling Sainsbury’s and another new client, Toyota? Sainsbury’s prides itself on how "our values our different", but was this secret process the best way to run the pitch?

What is clear from M/SIX’s win is the importance of data-driven marketing, which has become a priority for advertisers battling to cope with digital transformation. It is why other data-first outfits such as Merkle and Wunderman have been prospering.

To find the winners in media, follow the data.

Gideon Spanier is head of media at Campaign. 

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