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Sloganeering…and a question for £48 bloke

01 Sep 2020  |  Dominic Mills 
Sloganeering…and a question for £48 bloke

Dominic Mills considers whether John Lewis should replace its awkward, now-shelved slogan, and if it might be time to sell his shares in WPP

The job done, I sent my client the invoice. A day later she rang.

“Your invoice...” she started, "...is fine, but can I give you some advice?”

Uh oh, I thought.

“I shouldn’t really tell you this, and you can’t change your invoice now, but you’re underselling yourself.”

“Underselling. What do you mean?”

“You could easily charge more. You’re pricing yourself too cheap.”

Hmmm, I wondered, did that mean I was the John Lewis of her suppliers? Or was I Poundland? At that point my head hurt and I gave up thinking about it.

But, in a nutshell, that has always been my problem with the John Lewis ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ slogan, now consigned to history. I never instinctively understood it, and thanks to its twisted syntax nor did it ever roll easily off the tongue.

Underselling to me, means pricing something low, so ‘never knowingly priced too low’ was therefore the exact opposite of what John Lewis intended to say.

Here’s how the dictionary defines ‘undersell’; and here is JLP’s explanation of what it means in practice, although it’s worth noting the caveats.

So far, we don’t know if JLP is serious about a new slogan, beyond a tease from chair Sharon White about ‘Fair value for all’, which is boring as hell.

Personally, I’d like to see one, and not just because I love a good slogan or because, thanks to Covid-19, slogans are back in style.

No, it’s because a slogan — or a good one that sticks in the mind — is a hard-working asset, always there to remind or nudge the customer and to keep the brand honest.

Tesco left a couple of items off a recent home delivery, and its ripen-at-home bananas were, well, on their way to alcohol. So I phoned to complain and, guess what, every little did help.

But more important for JLP, it is going through an identity crisis, in which it not only has to work out what it is for but also what it stands for (two sides of the same coin, you might say). This problem is exacerbated by its hybrid nature, caught between the bricks-and-mortar retail temples and the rapid shift of its business online.

Thus, speaking personally, it is not only the slogan that confuses me but also what JLP sells and why I should go there. Judging by the relentless erosion of its finances, I am not the only one struggling with the latter.

A slogan won’t define JLP, but it will expand or reinforce its position and proposition.

It will also help differentiate it from its competition, whoever they are now or will be in the future. Whatever it is though, it should be one that is easily understood and rolls off the tongue. But on that note, I should point out that one of its competitors has done quite well without a slogan. No, not Poundland, which had to drop its, but Amazon.

The 48 quid bloke and a big question

Trivial as I am, the first thing that caught my eye in Gideon Spanier’s interview last week with WPP boss Mark Read (pictured) on its Q2 results was Read’s comment that his expenses bill for July was the grand sum of £48.00.

Read’s point was he was no longer roaming the globe to meet clients and visit the far-flung parts of the WPP empire. But I couldn’t help feeling that he was also trying to suggest, in order to keep the T&Es line down, that this was a new era of thrift. Either that, or it was a bit of virtue signalling.

Unfortunately, I took something else from the comment. What kind of person, paid over £1 million last year, actually bothers to claim expenses of £48.00? It really can’t be worth the bother and it reminds me of those MPs rigorously detailing the cost of a KitKat and a grab-bag of Walkers crisps.

Trivia aside, there is much to digest in the official results statement. The first thing that stands out is that VMLY&R and Wunderman Thompson are highlighted as two of WPP’s best performing agencies. Both are the result of seemingly-controversial mergers instigated by Read early on in his tenure. He must feel vindicated.

The second, and it plays to the performance of those two agencies, is WPP’s description of the changing nature of its work. Here’s the relevant paragraph from the statement:

“The nature and delivery of our client work has evolved significantly. Most of our major clients required rapid support in developing relevant communications, with new campaigns being developed in days rather than months. Our investment in production through Hogarth, combining leading-edge technology with a wide geographical footprint, has been a strong differentiator in this regard.

"We have also been working with clients to re-plan their communications spend, redirecting resources to alternative channels and maximising their media return on investment. Work on ecommerce and omnichannel services has also ramped up significantly, with ongoing ecommerce engagements with 8 of our top 10 clients.”

The bigger thread that runs through the results is that WPP is beginning to decouple itself from media expenditure, and is therefore going well beyond old fashioned ads-n’-media stuff.

The downside, however, is that the powerhouse media agencies that make up GroupM are less advanced in this regard and have therefore relatively underperformed given the way media expenditure has fallen, although Read is confident this will pick up again medium and long term.

Nevertheless, the pressure will be on them to widen their offerings in order to diminish their reliance on media. Most of the big players have been on this road for a while — adding data, content, consultancy and so on — but perhaps not fast enough and perhaps not brave enough yet to start charging for planning and the like.

And so to my big question: should I sell my WPP shares or buy more? I bought them about 18 months ago at £12 or so, partly for fun (I got a cheap thrill playing the I’m-a-shareholder card and asking senior WPP folk to pull their fingers out) and partly because, at about two thirds of their all-time high, I thought the only way was up. What do I know? Today they are about half the price I paid.

On balance, I think I’ll stick for now - severe loss aversion, behavioural scientists will say — and hope either that Read is right that WPP is in recovery mode or that someone will break it up and the sum of its parts will prove greater than the whole — at least twice, to be precise.

Yeah, right.

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