A twiggy situation for poultry farmers facing paltry payouts

As if Marks & Spencer’s chicken suppliers haven’t got enough on their plates with the threat of bird flu, they are now having to subsidise Twiggy and friends

As if Marks & Spencer’s chicken suppliers haven’t got enough on their plates with the threat of bird flu, they are now having to subsidise Twiggy and friends

Of all those who bear more than their fair share of life’s sorrows, you might think that the chicken farmer would be among the last in line to receive his soupçon of our sympathy, and you might be right. All the same, his is not a happy lot. There he stands, ankle-deep in the malodorous by-product of his trade, scanning the horizon for signs of an airborne invasion from France, just as the Home Guard did all those years ago. Will, he anxiously wonders, some flapping fowl filled to the crop with flu germs cross the Channel, land among his flock and sneeze all over them?

Even if that disaster does not befall him he must for ever be on the qui vive for some crazed, balaclava-wearing animal rights activist hell bent on releasing his birds from the warmth of their factory and into the waiting jaws of neighbourhood foxes.

And yet, even into the most black-clouded life a little sunshine must occasionally shine, and so it is with the chicken farmer. For many is the time that, observing a hen’s legs and hearing its trilling cluck, he is reminded of the 1960s model Twiggy – and when that happens a smile crosses his creased countenance and, just for a moment, his brow loses its furrow. Sometimes, a hen will scuttle by, embark on a series of animated hops, flap its wings and launch itself into a symphony of shrill throat-clearing, just as Twiggy did in the starring role in Ken Russell’s film The Boyfriend.

But now even that small pleasure is denied the chicken rearer. No more will those scrawny legs raise a smile or that yodelling call evoke happy memories of a different time. From now on, all thoughts of Twiggy will be dark and resentful. For it is one thing to picture the model in the mind’s eye, quite another to have your pocket pinched to pay for her daily comforts. But that is what is soon going to happen.

I am assuming that our farmer helps to meet Marks & Spencer’s huge demand for chickens in all their various forms and parts – chickens whole, chickens raw, chickens cooked, chickens’ thighs, chickens’ legs, and chickens still in their pre-natal shells. If so, he has considered himself fortunate. Avian flu may hover overhead, the animal liberationist may prime his petrol bomb but good old Marks & Sparks pays the bills.

Yet last week came the news that the company had sent a letter to all its suppliers saying that it will unilaterally knock off 10% from their invoices and dock a further 0.5% for “marketing expense”. The money will be used to help pay for its &£45m advertising campaign featuring celebrity models Twiggy, Erin O’Connor, Laura Bailey and Noemie Lenoir.

Understandably, the suppliers are aggrieved. One was reported as saying: “If M&S can’t afford to spend &£45m on those glossy ads, they shouldn’t force their suppliers to pick up the bill.” Another added: “People are being squeezed to the bone. There will come a point where we will either go bankrupt or throw in the towel and walk away.”

But M&S is, as always, unapologetic and unrepentant. It argues that a successful marketing programme helps suppliers – the implication being that they should shoulder some of the cost and be grateful for it. A spokeswoman says: “We are continuing to invest heavily in marketing, and on our store remodels and online programme. This benefits the supplier because, as a result, we are getting a quicker turnaround on products, with better cashflow and higher revenues.”

No one should feel sorry for M&S as it drags itself out of a mess of its own making. Its complacency and bureaucracy were its downfall, and retailing is an unforgiving business. To its credit, however, it is pulling back from the brink and the principal weapon in its recovery is marketing. It has listened to its customers and taken steps to simplify and speed up its supply chain. And its advertising has improved immensely. There could be no greater contrast than between the ill-conceived commercial of a few years ago – in which an overweight woman made balloon-like progress up a grassy hillside, shedding her clothes as she went, and finally proclaimed “I’m normal”, while standing atop a knoll – and the willowy elegance of Twiggy.

All the same, it seems a little harsh to dip into other people’s bank balances to pay the bills. But, this being a marketing magazine, I suppose we should rejoice. As long as the money flows in, what matter who ultimately picks up the tab? All the same, if I were a chicken farmer I would not be able to look at a hen’s legs in quite the same way again.

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