Into the mailstrom

If the Royal Mail thought it could easily win over consumers and business by using its staff to front its latest ads, it was wrong. For a looming postal workers’ strike threatens to undermine the core message that it is a people business; and

You’ve met the Halifax’s Howard Brown many times and you’ve probably watched quite a few ads featuring those helpful staff at DIY chain B&Q. You will have found it hard to avoid Orange’s in-store trainers, who appeared in a TV campaign earlier this summer, and you must remember Remington’s Victor Kiam and Peter Davis, the man from the Pru.

Now meet the postal workers of the Royal Mail, who are set to appear in a &£20m campaign that is supposed to break in mid-October. The mail delivery provider is joining the list of brands putting a soft-sell gloss on the role of employees, and promoting customer service values through a “real people” strategy.

Some 40 postal workers have been selected to appear in the ads, and while the details are being kept under wraps, Royal Mail confirms that the campaign aims to show its staff are the backbone of the organisation and highlight its credibility as a business partner. It is understood the postal workers will be presented doing their normal tasks “outside their normal circumstances”.

Stamp of disapproval

But as Royal Mail marketing director Paul Troy works with newly recruited ad agency Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO to put the finishing touches to the campaign, a potential crisis looms. Some 160,000 postal workers are voting in a ballot on whether to strike in support of an immediate eight per cent pay claim, rejecting a 14.5 per cent deal tied to productivity proposed by senior management – former Mars marketer Allan Leighton and ex-Saatchi & Saatchi boss Adam Crozier, chairman and chief executive respectively. Crozier, the former chief executive of the Football Association, is understood to be deeply involved in the ad and believes it will be a classic, award-winning campaign.

Pay package

A Communications Workers Union spokesman says that postal workers want more than a slap on the back for their efforts: “We don’t have any argument over the campaign’s statement that the staff are the lifeblood of the business. What we are saying is that if Royal Mail really believes that, it should invest in the workforce – and that means an up-front pay award rather than employees having to jump through hoops to get one.”

He believes the campaign will add fuel to their argument for higher wages: “The public will see foregrounding frontline staff as adding to our argument. The average take-home pay for a postal worker is below &£200 per week; most people know that is poverty wages.”

The idea of using staff in advertising may be a way of bypassing the union’s influence and beckoning employees into the happy-clappy world of modern management techniques, emphasising Leighton’s “we’re all in this together” approach. When Leighton was chief executive of Asda, he told delegates at a conference that giving staff more involvement in the running of the business kept them happy and said that this meant managers could get away with paying them less.

For businesses with large workforces, television ad campaigns are as much aimed at those tens of thousands of staff as they are at consumers and investment audiences. Companies often use them to communicate brand values to workers on the front line of dealing with customers. And what better way to motivate employees than to take that a step further and put them at the heart of the ad strategy?

But the use of staff in ads has become controversial in the advertising business. Some believe such ads can come across as patronising to the workforce and will inevitably lead to the satirising of staff. Others think they may alienate staff who tire of seeing a small number of (specially chosen) workers representing their efforts.

Kevin Thomson, president of internal marketing consultancy Enterprise Business & Brand Engagement, says: “Your people are your brand, but if you use them in your ads, you have to be very sure of them.” He points to the Peter Davis “Man from the Pru” campaign, which was initially well regarded, but was undermined when Davis left Prudential and became the man from Sainsbury’s. He also points to the fact that the Halifax has started using cartoons of employee/spokesman Howard Brown; he believes this may be because other staff resented so much focus on one person.

Workers’ blight

There’s also the fact that few real staff campaigns last very long, and some see this as evidence that they fail to capture the public imagination over the long term.

“Advertising will only ever be a veneer to any internal marketing campaign. If it is part of the fabric of the organisation, it can play a role; if you use it in isolation, it becomes evident there is not any substance to it,” says TBWA/London chief executive Andrew McGuinness.

McGuinness believes ad campaigns have to be sold to the workforce – the agency’s ads for French Connection are presented to the clothes chain’s staff every quarter by creative director Trevor Beattie. But he believes care needs to be taken when using staff in ads. “The original Howard Brown ad celebrating the staff was fine as part of an overall programme. Now it has become a pastiche of the staff, almost as if the ads are knocking them.”

A Halifax spokesman points out that TBWA works for rival bank Abbey National. “I am glad it has annoyed them. That means it has worked,” he says. “The Howard Brown ads have been the most successful campaign we have run and have had good recall. It is true that we are not taking ourselves too seriously, we are not pretending our staff are fantastic singers,” he adds. He claims the Bollywood ad set in India is the most successful of the series in stimulating recall and creating new business.

Personnel attack

Some observers believe that the Royal Mail hired AMV in June on the strength of the agency’s previous mega-campaigns, particularly BT’s “Its Good to Talk” ads featuring Bob Hoskins. But the agency’s “Value to Shout About” campaign for Sainsbury’s, which featured a hectoring John Cleese treating staff in a condescending manner, was axed after staff complained the ads portrayed them in a bad light.

Although no details about the new Royal Mail ads are available yet, there does seem to be some dissonance between the good work done by postal workers as represented in the ads and the reality of a workforce discontent enough to consider strike action. When AMV won the Royal Mail business, its managing director Farah Ramzan said: “For Royal Mail, people make a difference. Its people have a pride in their business and we want to put that pride on display.” Doing so at a time of such industrial discord will be quite a feat to pull off.

Additional reporting by Adam Grossman

Deliver us from EU

The familiar sound of mail dropping through the letterbox may be absent shortly as the country faces its first national postal strike for seven years. The Communications Workers Union and its 160,000 UK postal workers will reach a decision on strike action by September 19, now that Royal Mail’s pay offer of 14.5 per cent over 18 months has been rejected. The proposal was linked to conditions including the axeing of twice-daily deliveries and 30,000 voluntary redundancies.

Royal Mail has already had its fair share of departures and upheavals over the past year. In January, brand marketing chief Paul Troy was appointed to the new role of head of marketing services in a restructured marketing department. The highest-profile recruitment to the board made by chairman Allen Leighton was former Saatchi & Saatchi and FA chief Adam Crozier – appointed chief executive in December last year.

The possibility of a strike comes in a year when the European postal monopolies are being opened up to competition following the adoption of the European Postal Services Directive in June 2002. Royal Mail’s grip on the UK postal market is being weakened now that industry regulator Postcomm has awarded four seven-year licences to rival operators, allowing them to collect and sort mail and make bulk mail deliveries.

Postcomm intends to open up the entire UK postal market to competition by 2007. In the meantime, Royal Mail will still make all final deliveries in the UK, but the price it is allowed to charge rival operators for this service will not be decided until November this year.

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