The Max Attacks: This month I'd fire Marc Bolland, CEO of M&S

LBC Radio presenter James Max is fed up with business bosses not trying hard enough. So each month, we’re granting him the power to sack the worst offenders. This week, M&S’s chief is in the firing line.

Out of all the abominable messes, M&S’s Christmas TV ad campaign has to be one of the worst. Time to fire the CEO Marc Bolland.

You might question what a radio presenter like me knows about advertising. Or business, or indeed Marks & Spencer for that matter.

Back in the days when I had a real job, I worked in the Investment Banking Division for Morgan Stanley. I was part of the advisory team that successfully defended Marks & Spencer against the first take-over bid by Philip Green. The advice we gave the company is as relevant now as it was then.

M&S’s old fashioned HQ was sold off and redeveloped while they moved to more appropriate offices in Paddington Basin. Management were cleared out. Many of the oddities of a bygone age were consigned to the history books. For example, you knew you were on the company’s executive floor because of the thick plush carpet in the corridors and extensive artwork that adorned the walls.

Stores have become cluttered with toot. The food hall is littered with offers, making it like a cheap and tawdry supermarket.

Back when we defended M&S you could only use an M&S charge card to buy goods if you didn’t have cash or a cheque. They only sold M&S branded products in the food hall. The staff looked uncomfortable in their extraordinary uniforms and there was no TV advertising.

Much has changed in the past decade. M&S’s corporate structure is now robust, supply chains have been renegotiated, property assets managed and structured to protect shareholder value, and the company engaged with its customers through advertising and social media. Indeed, M&S stores have had a makeover, and mannequins are no longer headless.

What a great job Sir Stuart Rose did. He was installed at the helm of M&S in May 2004. He was the man who led the company through its renaissance period. Under Rose’s leadership the advertising stepped up a notch, and in 2005 the agency RKCR was appointed.

The concept of “this isn’t just food, this is M&S food” was created. It became part of the nation’s lexicon. More importantly, sales improved, and so did the profit margins.

Just look how far the company has come. While they made some fairly monumental errors on the way, one thing was for sure. Their advertising was spot on. During the year we were tempted by a range of well shot, creative ads that showed us what was on offer and tempted us to pay over the odds for their food. Meanwhile, their clothing regained its integrity with new brands and designers.

Despite the increasingly dark clouds hanging over the economy, we didn’t mind their prices because we were getting good value and quality for our money. Indeed the celebrity names the company picked to sell us their goods tapped neatly into the target demographic.

And talking of names, when it came to M&S fashion, headed by Twiggy again for the demographic, they just got it right.

At Christmas time a mixture of celebrity, humour, a great soundtrack and creative spark brought their campaign to life.

Rose left in 2010 on the appointment of Mark Bolland. And that’s when the rot began to set in.

With a big fanfare, the 2011 Christmas advert was launched. Steve Sharp, M&S’s executive director of marketing said, “Our TV campaigns have become almost legendary and for many customers mark the start of Christmas”.

Sainsbury’s have triumphed with Jamie, while Waitrose have delighted with Delia and Heston. What have M&S done? Nothing. Where’s Nigella or Nigel? Michel Roux Junior or even Mary Berry? What were they thinking?

Well, yes they do. But what a let down. Where are the celebs? Where is the “Magic and Sparkle”? Where are the clever gifts and ideas? This is an ad for the X Factor and not M&S. And not a very good one at that.

Now you may think I am coming to a swift conclusion here. But the lack of vision in the advert and the campaign demonstrates a wider problem.

If you look at the stores that have received a facelift since Mr Bolland took over, they have used faux (and rather cheap looking) theatre lights. A mish mash layout with poor design and a belated obsession with celebrity.

Stores have become cluttered with toot. The food hall is littered with offers, making it like a cheap and tawdry supermarket. (Although I’d comment that just because the price tag has a big font, that doesn’t mean you are getting a great deal.)

The tacky display is rather like Morrisons, which is where Mr Bolland was before. The clothes are poorly staged, the stores are badly designed and it’s all turning into a bit of a mess.

Sainsbury’s have triumphed with Jamie, while Waitrose have delighted with Delia and Heston. What have M&S done? Nothing. Where’s Nigella or Nigel? Michel Roux Junior or even Mary Berry? What were they thinking? They were thinking bout their bonuses and pay packages, it would seem, rather than minding the shop.

No one could have foretold the scandals that would engulf the 2011 season of The X Factor. But who on earth thought the finalists would be a good prospect? How on earth do they appeal to the target demographic? Have you seen the styling this year? It’s atrocious. At least get Messrs Barlow and O’Leary or Kelly Rowland into the ads. (But forget Tulisa. She’s more Matalan than Marks.)

So who did win the Christmas ad campaign? Well it wasn’t Asda or Morrisons or even Sainsbury’s. Not Comet or Currys (who curiously think it’s a good idea to portray their boss as Darth Vader). Certainly not Iceland who should be done for misrepresentation. I don’t know any celebrity who would serve up that cheap and nasty party garbage.

No. It’s John Lewis for their classy Christmas ad starring a little and aptly-named lad called Lewis. And their sister store Waitrose for sparkling their way into a Christmas winter wonderland of a kitchen.

Since the team who put out this ad campaign have been in place for a while, one can only surmise that the decisions came from the very top.

Mr Bolland. You are the weakest link. Goodbye.

James Max presents Weekend Breakfast every Saturday and Sunday mornings on London’s Biggest Conversation, LBC 97.3 FM. He is a qualified surveyor and worked in property and finance for 15 years. After working for one of the country’s leading property advisory firms, he completed healthy stints in investment banking and private equity, before becoming a candidate on The Apprentice, which launched a career in broadcast media. Visit JamesMax.co.uk.

Readers' comments (4)

  • Max, it couldn't have been said better. I reviewed the Ad via Youtube a few weeks ago then twitted oh how disappointed I was. X-factor's audience aren't the core of M&S target audience. Turkey, the traditional coleslaw and all the little bits that would have been from M&S will now be sourced from Waitrose this year.

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  • Anonymous

    M&S are incompetent in all levels of middle and lower management.When asked they dont even know what system of management they use and talk of having a team,but one without a leader. They are dishonest to their small suppliers and if they complain threaten them with legal action. They are arrogant and think they are God. They at the top are only there for their bonuses and have contempt for their suppliers and dont keep their word written or otherwise.Their c.e.o..has no shop floor experience and no interest except in himself..Their executives have degrees and qualifications,but few qualities and very low intelligence or understanding and are never held responsible with either targets or to explain their failings,but they still get a bonus,Bolland is worse than Bob Diamond as he is also dishonest but made money for shareholders,but Bolland failed and was still given millions instead of the sack...With their dysfuncional management their shares will drop rapidly. I remenber when it was run by Jewish executives 35 years ago and they knew how to sell,look after the shop and always kept their word especially to small suppliers as they had themselves been treated badly as a small minority. They are gone now and hence the M&S decline with arrogant opportunist CEOs who have no idea what customers want and dont care as long as they get their massive undeserved payouts.

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  • no M&S are not what they used to be with a ceo who is totally unable to understand how to manage especially at middle and lower level . Yes he is the bob diamond of retailing and should be fired and given a job in line with his low ability and have his shares and bonus stripped.He is ruining M&S and is like diamond only in it for himself

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  • Anonymous

    pity you dont allow the truth like many organs of the press and uphold this evil system of fascist propaganda

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