Faster, simpler, cheaper: How Asda’s agency ecosystem model is working

Asda says it is now working on marketing activities eight weeks sooner than it was 12 months ago, with the almost year-old partnership with agency AMV already beginning to bear fruit across the business.

Asda believes the decision to change the way it works with agencies has made its marketing faster, simpler and more cost-effective, with the supermarket saying it is now working on things eight weeks sooner than it was a year ago.

At the time, few clues were given about what an agency ‘ecosystem’ model actually meant and how it would work. Now, what has been going on behind very closed doors for the last 12 months is finally starting to show.

In April 2018, Asda ditched its agency of two years Saatchi & Saatchi in favour of AMV, which is leading the new ‘ecosystem’ model. AMV is responsible for helping the supermarket to co-ordinate with the different partners it works with to bring big ideas to life – the first of which we saw in November in the form of an adrenaline-seeking Santa.

It starts with an “idea lockdown”, which is where AMV works with the insights team to come up with the core brand idea, consider what it might look like on a 30-second TV script or Instagram post and shape the brief.

But AMV is not responsible for creating the various campaign assets. This is where Asda’s other specialist partners come in to develop these assets across individual channels and build the customer journey around the idea. Meanwhile, another team within marketing called MOPS (marketing operations) helps with production timeline management to make sure marketing is communicating with other parts of the business and spotting opportunities to simplify the process and keep it moving fast.

The mistake a lot of people make in going after new agency partners is that they’re not really clear in what they want to do themselves and what are they asking the agency to do.

Andy Murray, Asda

“A key to make all this work was to get ahead of the game in timelines,” Asda’s chief customer officer Andy Murray tells Marketing Week.

“When you don’t have an idea lockdown process that you can point to and say, ‘let’s get everything ready set go and organised in this time period’, you tend to keep evolving it as you go and you never really draw a line in the sand and sort out and then deploy. By having a separate team dedicated to coming up with big ideas, framing it up on how it might work across the channels and putting it into that ecosystem of execution, versus just doing it all, you are then able to have much cleaner hand-offs and much tighter programmes.”

It is a dramatically different way of working for the UK’s third-largest supermarket in a sector where it is common practice for one agency to start with a TV script and then build the campaign out from there.

Preparation for the ecosystem model began long before AMV came on board in April 2018 to make sure Asda was “fit for purpose” internally first.

READ MORE: The branding conundrum – Balancing Sainsbury’s quality messaging with Asda’s focus on value

“We probably spent a good eight months prior to going into agency pitches looking at the total ecosystem – rethinking the internal Asda marketing team and how do we go to the customer, how are we leveraging digital and the channels and the total customer experience,” Murray explains.

“We beefed up internally before the transition, what I call the subject-matter expert roles on digital, programmatic, customer journey work. We’ve got some real experts now that can help us be a better partner to the agency ecosystem side, which we didn’t have in the past.”

Asda also created its own in-house design studio, which Murray claims saved it half of the total ecosystem cost.

“The mistake a lot of people make in going after new agency partners is that they’re not really clear in what they want to do themselves and what are they asking the agency to do,” he adds. “That was the value of trying to get that sorted before we went into the outside world.”

The ‘Bring it Home’ brand positioning

Asda’s 2018 Christmas campaign, ‘Bring Christmas Home’, was the first time it showcased the work it had been doing with AMV to the outside world.

A marked change in creative direction for Asda, the ‘Bring it Home’ theme came from research into how customers view the Asda brand – from what makes it distinctive to perceptions around colour, price and value. The aim is to make this more consistent through 2019 as Asda looks to broaden its customer base and boost memorability.

“To get that stickiness with the brand – not just focusing on the core loyal customers but really being a broad church of a store, a brand for everyone,” Murray says. “To broaden that look and the aperture to who we talk to and be as relevant to as many people as possible but then also start talking about reasons to shop that they may not think about for Asda.”

An important part of this is moving the message beyond price, especially as the German discounters Aldi and Lidl continue to grow their market share. While price is still important, and separating it too much from the brand would be a “dangerous place to be”, there other aspects of the business Asda wants to talk about more in its comms.

“As we tested different propositions, everything under one roof without compromise was a really clear way that customers were talking to us about why they shop at Asda,” Murray explains.

“Clearly price is important but the fact that they can get the things they want under one roof without compromise. Discounters can have good prices but you do have to compromise on range.

“We’ll talk about quality at times more than price,” he adds. “It depends on the product category and barriers we’re trying to overcome.”

You’ve got to first get cut-through before you get memorability and so we really give AMV latitude to be creative.

Andy Murray, Asda

Asda has a number of processes in place to guage the effectiveness of its creative. All creative is pre-tested before it goes live to check if the message is clear and that customers understand it, while neuroscience technology is used after launch to analyse frame-by-frame and see where the energy levels are and what customers like and dislike.

A creative excellence board, made up of leaders from both Asda and AMV, also meets every month to go through the work and see where they could have done better and what to improve for next time.

What Asda is guilty of, Murray admits, is wanting to tell its customer everything. This is where AMV has been instrumental in helping it to get cut-through.

READ MORE: Sainsbury’s and Asda could be forced to sell one of the brands after merger deemed ‘bad for customers’

“There’s always that challenge, and there has been since the dawn of advertising, where the client wants to say all these things and the agency has to sift through and say that won’t cut-through,” he says.

“You’ve got to first get cut-through before you get memorability and we really give [AMV] latitude to be creative to get that cut-through. It might be some hyperbole that they use to get that. If you don’t cut-through at the beginning your media has to work twice as hard so it’s a real combination for us to pair the media with the cut-through and the memorability.”

Another challenge is finding the right balance between being consistent in its brand messaging but not becoming stale.

“You can get high attribution from familiarity but it can become wallpaper because customers think ‘I’ve seen that already’,” Murray explains.

“There’s that balance on trying to make sure we don’t get formulaic. How do you stay fresh and get cut-through and also drive a consistency in the work? That is the job of the client/agency partnership, to walk that fine line so you get the best of that combination.”