The end of one of adland's great stands
The exit of Big Red from the Coles roster marks the termination of a partnership which redefined Australia's supermarket wars
Welcome to Unmade, mostly written in Pret a Manger in Horsham, on a not-at-all-Springlike day.
Happy International Bagpipe Day.
It was a more eventful journey to the UK than I’d anticipated. QF1 enjoyed an extra three hours in Darwin. Apparently there was a “runway pavement failure”. I’m not sure exactly what that meant, but the gist of it was that the takeoff for our 18 hour trip to London needed to be over a shorter distance, which meant lightening the load.
While they figured that out, first the flight crew, and then the cabin crew, ran out of operating hours. Luckily for us, and unfortunately for the passengers travelling on the next flight an hour or so later, we were able to steal the crew intended for QF9 and eventually get away.
Flying internationally with Qantas is a different experience these days. They haven’t been selling ad inventory during the pandemic. Before, you’d see the RM Williams craftsman in action so many times you’d leave the plane confident you could make a pair of boots yourself if required. The orthodoxies of frequency capping don’t count above 30,000 feet. Now they just show you the movie.
And it was only when I found myself disconsolately staring at the dwindling number of suitcases remaining on the Heathrow luggage carousel that I realised I had made my own non-voluntary contribution to the lightening of the load. When it’s just above freezing in London and your coat is in a suitcase left on the tarmac 15,000 kilometres south, the decision to wear only a T-shirt onto the plane is one to reflect upon.
The end of Big Red’s Coles reign
In my faulty memory, the article we published on Mumbrella a decade ago was written with far more disdain than is obvious rereading it now.
I can still remember what I thought at the time. From the honour of being the opening act of Live Aid in 1985, Status Quo had sunk to this.
This was a reworking of the band’s hit “Down, deeper and down” in celebration of the Coles big red hand.
Advertising purists hated it.
But it changed the trajectory of the ongoing war between Coles and Woolworths.
While the starstruck Woolworths turned to new kids on the block Droga5 Australia for a repositioning that didn’t stick, Coles went old school and called in Ted Horton’s Big Red.
I don’t think there’s been a better case study in the gap between adland creativity for the sake of it and advertising effectiveness.
Yesterday, AdNews confirmed the news that has been anticipated for a while now. The Coles agency roster is out for pitch and Big Red is out. According to AdNews, Omnicom Group, Publicis Groupe and WPP have been invited to participate by CMO Lisa Ronson, who took the helm in 2019.
DDB has gradually been expanding its place on the roster, and few people would bet against the agency winning most or all of the creative business. There’s a certain balance to it. It comes almost exactly 12 years since Coles moved most of its production in-house, with Horton effectively becoming creative director, displacing DDB.
For the next few years, Horton and Coles’ then chief marketing officer Simon McDowell provided the most formidable collaboration between marketer and creative in Australia since McDonald’s boss Charlie Bell and Paul Jones.
The Coles big red hand wormed its way into the Australian zeitgeist, as did the “Down down” message.
But cheesy as the message was, it was laser-targeted. Not only was the supermarket aggressive about lowering prices for everyday Australians, there was no missing it. Prices were down, down.
But what I came to admire about Coles’ ever widening position was the strategic platform it was all built upon.
For low prices, the message was driven home by Status Quo and the big red hand. The freshness message was presented by TV chef Curtis Stone, who’d been introduced by DDB. For new product launches came the character Jenny the new girl.
At the height of One Direction mania came a lookalike boyband to launch the new Coles Mastercard. And Coles went even further, doing a deal with One Direction for 10,000 customers to win tickets to a show.
Each development reinforced the message further while staying on brand. The little red car to spruik Coles insurance was another successful move.
The work was always memorable and never award winning.
Back in 2013, I interviewed McDowell on stage at Mumbrella360. He brought along a red hand guitar. Nearly a decade on, his mantra is still one for marketers to aspire to:
“Do I care what adland thinks? Not a bit. Not one bit.
“We have more customers spending more money at Coles than we ever had in our history.
“Like the advertising or hate the advertising, we are trying to build the most famous, most compelling, most engaging brand in Australia and if you work for a brand that is already like that, then all the power to you, but we’re really trying to be that brand and we’re very passionate about that.
“If you can get 100,000 kids singing ‘down down, prices are down’ with their mums, then best of luck. We’re not apologetic about it.
“I’m not particularly interested in anything that resonates with the advertising industry.”
Two years later, I got to interview Horton on the same stage. That was also a masterclass in making unpretentious advertising. Seven years on, it’s still worth a watch.
Meanwhile, the supermarket wars are moving to new battlegrounds. Now it’s in-store retail. Coles has reacted to the rise of Woolworths’ Cartology with the appointment of Paul Brooks to lead its media offering.
Not that the end of the Coles partnership means the end of Horton’s impact on Australian marketing. It’s no coincidence that public perceptions around BHP have improved over the last three years. That’s Horton’s voiceover in the ad too, by the way.
But the end of the Big Red relationship with Coles is a major moment. Few agencies last a dozen years with a client, and almost none change the game in the way that McDowell and Horton did.
The Unmade Index nudges back up
The Unmade Index of listed media and marketing companies regained a little ground on Wednesday, following the ASX All Ordinaries back towards positive territory after a bad start to the week.
Real estate portal Domain gained 4%, which also helped drive up the price of its majority shareholder Nine. Ooh Media is stuck below a $1bn market capitalisation, while Seven West Media hovers just above the same threshold.
Time to let you get on with your Thursday.
By the time you receive this, I’ll have borrowed a coat and be watching comedian Hannah Gadsby on stage in Brighton. It seems like a long way to come to watch a fellow Tasmanian.
Have a great day.