Returning to a country after an absence of a few years throws into
relief the gradual changes that have occurred while you’ve been
Mike Bowen has been lured back to the UK as European development
director for Carlson, after five years as managing director for IMP in
Italy. What’s struck him, he says, is that the big ideas seem to have
’There are many promotions in the marketplace where you can say that,
yes, in theory, they ought to work, but there’s nothing special about
them. They’re just promotional wallpaper,’ he says.
It’s a quote I’ve been toting round the sales promotion industry, and
for a very good reason. Not everyone agrees with Bowen, and some think
he’s suffering from a nasty bout of nostalgia. But there are several
different answers to the question and together they illustrate just how
much ’sales promotion’ has evolved, to the point where even the Sales
Promotion Consultants Association is considering a name change.
The first point is that on-pack grocery promotions, like the famous ’Win
a car a day’ from Heinz, are a much smaller part of the business than
they were. A lot of this is to do with contracting budgets and more
money being diverted, willingly or otherwise, into trade marketing.
One consultancy quoted the example of a client which now allocates four
times as much to funding price cuts as it does to brand-building
Moreover, the kind of promotions retailers press for, such as ’two for
the price of one’ and other disguised price cuts, offer little creative
scope to agencies and are often best handled in-house.
This has led to a lot of agencies turning their backs on the
once-important area of tactical, on-pack promotions, which were
traditionally farmed out as ad-hoc projects. ’We’re not interested any
more in doing on-pack promotions,’ says Jon Claydon of Claydon Heeley.
’You can build a business on that kind of work, but it’s not what we
want to do.’
’The packaged goods market has largely died,’ adds Matthew Hooper,
managing director of Interfocus. ’We were in packaged goods in 1989-91,
but the power of the retailers is awesome, and we substantially bailed
out as other markets, such as leisure products, grew.’
Even smaller agencies such as Ignition Marketing find the sector less
attractive. As recently as three years ago, fmcg accounted for 80% of
its business, according to chairman Andrew Sutcliffe. Now it’s down to
15%: ’We took a conscious decision to break out into other markets where
we could genuinely add value.’
Ignition is building a name for itself, taking fmcg creativity into
business-to-business marketing. A high-profile campaign it runs for
Thomas Cook, aimed at business customers, led to both Centre File, the
UK’s leading payroll processor, and QAS, one of the country’s leading
suppliers of address-checking software, knocking on its door.
Centre File’s brief was to ’do a Benetton’, with high-profile, even
controversial, trade press advertising. This was achieved with bright
fluorescent colours designed to shock the grey world of accountancy and
personnel management; the campaign was later developed with direct mail
and an exhibition stand in the same colours.
Finding the answers
So another answer to the question, ’whatever happened to the big idea’
is that the ideas are cropping up in a wider range of industries, and
are being carried through into a wider range of media.
There could hardly be a better example than the ’Intel inside’ programme
for Intel microprocessors, which embraces the full communications
programme from advertising and PR to point of sale, points out KLP
chairman Iain Ferguson.
There’s much wider appreciation of the value of integrated
communications in the true sense, which means taking the spirit and
culture of the brand through from advertising to other media.
’The big idea is much more likely to be a brand idea than a promotion
idea these days,’ says Perspectives managing director Mark Beasley.
Bowen, whose comments launched this debate, points to his agency’s new
work for John Smith’s bitter. Just as the brand’s latest TV campaign
takes the mickey out of advertising, so the support material in the pub
is a pastiche of promotion cliches.
Slogans include ’Free room at the bar with every pint (subject to
availability)’, ’Free glass hire while pint lasts’, and ’Buy one. Then
Integration means that all a client’s agencies will sit round a table
and thrash out the best idea for the brand, and how to take it forward
using the different communications media. At this level, the quality of
the thinking and the ability to translate concepts into different
disciplines become much more important.
An intriguing glimpse of where all this may be heading comes from KLP’s
Ferguson. Its sister company in Paris has a joint venture with Andersen
Consulting, while KLP in London has a similar deal with ’brand
architecture’ consultancy Galileo.
’This has only been in place for a couple of months, but it is making a
difference in a couple of ways,’ he claims. ’Everything is thought about
more, even the simple work is thought about strategically. So the work
’Also, because this is never a ’done job’, the conversations we have
with the clients are moving up the food chain. They tend to be at least
with the marketing director, and possibly with the chief executive, and
they can be about the future of the brand, if not the future of the
In short, the big idea is as important as ever. But is it sales
Not as we once knew it.