News that Marks & Spencer has pulled its advertising from the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard - the three Associated Newspapers titles most read by the retailer's target over-40s market - has surprised both PROs and marketers.
M&S has reportedly taken umbrage over an inaccurate MoS article that claimed the company was planning to sell up to half of its small-scale Simply Food convenience shops. The MoS subsequently corrected the offending piece but, since January, the retailer has placed no further ads in the paper or its stablemates.
M&S director of communications Flic Howard-Allen refuses to explain to PRWeek its rationale for withdrawing its ads, merely insisting that, from a media relations perspective, there will be 'no change' to the way the company deals with Associated's journalists.
Likewise, executives at Associated - which carried £2.9m worth of M&S ads across the Daily Mail, the MoS and the Evening Standard between February 2004 and January 2005 - are also keeping schtum on the spat.
PROs baffled by decision
So why did M&S believe it would be a good idea to alienate three titles of such great importance to the retailer?
'This will hurt M&S because these titles are aimed squarely at its target audience,' says one head of comms at a media buying agency. 'The Associated titles are big enough to make up the lost revenue.'
Most PROs struggle to recall precedents for M&S's move and are baffled by its decision. 'I would not have expected an organisation of this size and stature to get involved in this kind of tit for tat,' observes one comms chief at a well-known high-street retailer.
'If something has been written with a particularly vindictive slant then it is reasonable for a company to want to protect itself, but you would want to keep that separate from commercial considerations,' he adds.
On the other hand, some believe M&S bosses may have felt at the end of their tether with Associated articles. Pulling advertising, they say, could result in the opposite of the desired effect. 'This is not effective,' advises one senior corporate PRO. 'It could rebound and certainly won't stop journalists writing bad stories about M&S.'
What do other organisations feel about M&S's move? COI Communications, the government comms and advertising procurement agency, and the UK's biggest spender on press advertising in 2004, says it does not take press coverage into account when making 'strategic' decisions on where to place (or pull) advertising.
But there have been other high-profile instances where companies, aggrieved at what they believed to be a journalist's or title's agenda, have threatened to pull, or actually withdrawn, advertising (see box).
Perhaps the most notorious was Harrods' decision to pull advertising from the London Evening Standard because of its no-holds-barred attack on store owner Mohamed Al Fayed after the 1997 death of his son Dodi and Princess Diana.
But while no company wants to be seen to be trampling on press freedom by choking advertising funds, it clearly rankles when a paper that carries millions of pounds worth of an organisation's ads does not appear to be giving that firm a fair hearing.
Dixons Group, whose Currys electrical arm spent more than £18m on advertising in 2004, takes a pragmatic approach to the traditional divide between advertising and editorial. 'We fully respect editorial independence,' says Dixons head of press and PR Hamish Thompson. 'But we do from time to time take other factors into account. If a newspaper or broadcaster adopts a consistently negative stance it stands to reason that managers need to make pragmatic decisions if this has diminished the impact of advertising.'
Withdrawing ad spend because of bad coverage is not an option that most companies would take lightly, but even the motivation behind the 'pragmatic decisions' to which Thompson refers can shift according to the needs of the business and where it wants to position itself and its reputation.
In 1987, for example, Tesco and the then Co-operative Wholesale Society (now the Co-operative Group) withdrew advertising from the Daily Star, partly as a result of the tabloid's frequent pictures of topless women.
Co-operative Group head of PR Martin Henderson recalls this as a decision taken by management, not the marketing or comms departments.
There in a nutshell is the dilemma for PROs at any big spender on press ads. While they will always maintain their independence from the company's media buyers, just as journalists insist on theirs from the paper's ad sellers, there is always potential for this difficult relationship to break down.
It is not clear who made the fateful decision at M&S, but the fact that neither side is talking suggests the topic is a delicate one and maybe that someone somewhere may be having a rethink. After all, such a public clash of PR and journalistic positions is not something M&S communicators or Associated ad sellers will want to relive.
PULLING THE PLUG - NEWSPAPER AD BUST-UPS
- 2003: MG Rover and Express Newspapers The car maker threatens withdrawal of around £3m of annual ads over Sunday Express reports that Rover had suspended payment to some of its suppliers and could close. Rover still advertises in Northern & Shell's Express titles.
- 2000: Harrods and Evening Standard The Knightsbridge retail emporium pulls ads from London's Evening Standard after the paper accuses Mohamed Al Fayed of lying about the death of his son Dodi and Princess Diana. Harrods later renewed advertising with the paper.
- 1987: The Co-operative Wholesale Society/Tesco and the Daily Star
TCWS follows Tesco in withdrawing its advertising from the tabloid because it publishes images of topless women. Tesco now advertises with the Daily Star, while the Co-op no longer has an anti-Star policy.