Could a copywriter have saved HMV, Blockbuster and other high street chains from bankruptcy?


Creatives don’t think like chartered accountants.

Most of us don’t know how to run a big organisation.

We don’t know what management consultants know.

Even so, we can and do see things that so-called business experts don’t.

Coming from outside a client’s business, we have a fresh perspective.

We get to know their business and the way their customers think.

In order to come up with effective ideas that will sell our clients’ products and services, we are constantly putting ourselves in the customers’ shoes.

And thinking of all the factors affecting customers’ purchase decisions.

So sometimes, innocently, like the boy who said the emperor had no clothes, we spot the obvious.

We say, “If these guys don’t do X, they’re going to be in trouble.”

Or, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if this company did Y?”

And when we say these things, the agency and client’s marketing people look at us like we’re from another planet.

That’s because it’s not our job to make these comments.

And such observations don’t usually help to solve the client’s communication brief.

So they’re ignored.

I can recall an instance of this happening some years ago.

I’d noticed a potentially huge market opportunity, and mentioned it at a client/agency meeting.

Indulgent smiles all around, then back to the minutiae of the marketing problem.

Later, that client’s competitor saw the market opportunity I’d remarked on, and seized it.

To be fair to clients, the creative’s job is to answer a specific advertising or marketing brief, not to tell them how to run their company.

And to be fair to agencies, most of the ones I’ve worked at wouldn’t know how to charge clients for a random observation.

Even so, don’t you think it would be a good idea if companies’ senior managers occasionally asked their agencies’ creatives for suggestions on how to improve their business?

They could get some useful ideas.

I was reminded of that last week.

There was a piece in CityAM by a man whose agency used to create HMV’s advertising.

He says he warned his former client about the growing threat from online retailers.

And his client dismissed the thought.

Now look at HMV: sick as a dog.

(Maybe if the ad agency had called itself a management consultancy and charged three times its rate, the HMV client would have listened.)

Competition from the internet is driving so many high street companies into administration.

Were these bankruptcies inevitable?

Or could the companies have survived, at least in other forms, by being more vigilant, asking questions and taking action early so that they could adapt to the digital age?

Below are a few famous companies that have changed tack or reinvented themselves to survive and prosper.

Something must have prompted them.

Perhaps an insight or a tip-off from a perceptive copywriter?

Six companies that moved with the times

John Lewis. Why, as British high streets crumble, is John Lewis standing strong? Because it has adapted well to the age of “multi-channel” shopping, with an award-winning website and e-commerce at the heart of its business strategy – see this Marketing Society case study.

Whitbread. Founded in London in 1742, it was a famous brewer for over 200 years. Then, having spotted bigger opportunities in the hospitality industry, it sold off all its breweries and brewing interests. Whitbread now specialises in hotels (e.g. Premier Inn) and catering (e.g. Café Rouge and Costa Coffee, the second-biggest coffee store chain in the world).

Deutsche Post. Like the Royal Mail, the German postal service has been rapidly adjusting to a market where much less paper mail is sent. So it has sold off almost all of its 24,000 buildings and set up mini post offices in banks, shops and even private homes. What I think was a very clever move was when it realised that, with online shopping taking off, the market in national and international parcel delivery was expanding. So it bought DHL and instantly gained an international express network.

IBM. As its name suggests, International Business Machines used to make most of its money from computer hardware, particularly mainframes. Then the PC revolution blindsided the company, and by the early ’90s IBM was losing a fortune and shedding thousands of workers. Fortunately, under brilliant management, it rapidly reinvented itself as a consulting firm, offering hardware and software as part of its bespoke IT services.

Fujifilm. Unlike its rival Kodak, Fujifilm prepared well for the rise of digital cameras and the death of film cameras. In addition to making digital cameras, the company has found an alternative use for the chemicals it once used in its films: cosmetics. It has also adapted its film technology for use in LCD flat-panel screens.

Apple. “The most valuable company of all time” used to make only personal computers. Imagine how badly it would be doing today if it had stuck to making PCs. Unlike HMV, Apple seized an opportunity to expand into the downloadable music market. The result? In Apple’s recent fiscal year, iTunes had total net sales of $7.5 billion. And that’s just music. With iPhones, iPads… Apple is a company that’s always changing and adapting.

If only HMV, Blockbuster and other moribund chain stores had adapted to the modern world like those other companies.

They wouldn’t necessarily have saved British high streets, but they could have saved themselves.


9 replies
  1. Diana Barnes
    Diana Barnes says:

    Alex thank you for a short piece but full of wisdom and insight. Not only businesses should try to foresee and embrace change in society. Change is inevitable.Governments national and local, health and safety services and Education should be front runners in this but sadly they demonstrate clinging to past systems that are no longer efficient or effective. This is usually because the individual dislikes change and fears the unknown.

  2. Jacque S
    Jacque S says:

    Very true. In my experience the lateral minds of copywriters/creatives can often perceive a fundamental problem or spot a future business opportunity with startling accuracy, but it’s an uphill task to get ‘the naive creative’ vision taken seriously.

  3. Dean
    Dean says:

    Hi Phil, thanks. Yes, Virgin is a good example of a company that’s moved with the times. Sir Richard could teach a lot of retailers a thing or two.

  4. Dean
    Dean says:

    Jonny. Hello and thanks for dropping by. I will tell Suthons that yet another person has misspelled his name.

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