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House of Fraser has dropped its ad agency 18 Feet & Rising less than a month after it announced a round of store closures as part of its company voluntary arrangement (CVA) insolvency process. With its future hanging in the balance, the retailer’s next choice of agency will likely signify a commitment to either digital, brand, or both.

When the news of House of Fraser’s CVA broke in early May, 18 Feet & Rising was confident its relationship with the retailer would survive unscathed, believing that it would continue with the advertising plan set out by chief marketing officer Paddy Earnshaw. 

It also erroneously predicted that marketing would be one of the business departments less likely to be overhauled amid the CVA chaos.

The agency had seen the brand through some of the most challenging moments of its history over the last five years, working with no less than three marketing heads to produce work such as ‘Be You No Matter Who’, ‘Turn It On’ and last Christmas’s ‘Bring Merry Back’.

House of Fraser’s latest campaign, which is rather unfortunately named ‘The Blackout’, launched just as news of the business restructuring broke.

However, a day after reports surfaced that the CVA could lead to the closure of more than half of House of Fraser’s stores, both parties confirmed they would no longer be working together.

Earnshaw explained that the business and its marketing activity had found themselves at “a natural crossroads”. As such, he is viewing the call to pitch as an “an opportunity to reinvigorate and shake-up our thinking by seeking fresh perspectives”.

“We're looking forward to seeing where this next stage takes us to answer the modern needs of our customer base,” he added.

To target like Harvey Nics...

The strategy echoes that of Harvey Nichols’ earlier this year, when it unexpectedly fired its agency on 17 years, Adam&Eve/DDB, and replaced it with TBWA. Like House of Fraser, the retailer had also been struggling financially, having posted a loss of £6.7m in December last year.

Deborah Bee, the brand’s group marketing and creative director, explained that the rival Omnicom shop was selected to create “an alternative to brand campaigns, for a more targeted approach”.

It’s likely that House of Fraser will be looking for an ad agency that will do the same. The department store’s failure to keep up with the likes of Asos, Net-A-Porter and rival John Lewis online has arguably one of its biggest weaknesses over the past five years.

In 2017, for instance, House of Fraser announced a digital investment of £25m – a figure that represented just half of what Asos spent on e-commerce developments in the same year.

It’s therefore likely that the retailer will be looking to work less with traditional creatives, such as those at indie 18 Feet, and more with integrated and digital professionals if it is to make online work with a smaller budget than its competitors.

...or commit to brand like Debenhams?

It must, however, still prize strong creative if it's to convey what the brand stands for in 2018. As Richard Danks, brand director at Portas Agency recently put it to The Drum, “most of its stores are soulless shells where you dawdle from one brand’s ‘mat’ to another with no sense of hubbub, heart and soul, or differentiation”.

It may be likely, therefore, that House of Fraser ‘does a Debenhams’ and decides to beef up its creative offering with a fashionably cult shop with the potential to turn consumer perception around.  Debenhams ditched long-term partner J. Walter Thompson for Mother last November, briefing the Shoreditch independent to develop its brand identity and new marketing strategy, ‘Debenhams Redesigned’.

But whatever route House of Fraser chooses to go down with its next agency, 18 Feet & Rising is certainly out. Jonathan Trimble, the agency's chief executive, told The Drum it was invited to pitch but has chosen not to participate.

"We've greatly enjoyed our partnership with House of Fraser and we are proud of the creative work we've produced together over the year,” he said. “While we will be supporting House of Fraser through this period as it searches for a fresh direction, at this stage we will not be looking to re-pitch."

He added that The Blackout campaign will continue as long as Earnshaw requires it to.

Meanwhile, as Marks & Spencer announces plans to close 100 of its own stores by 2022, the industry will be keeping a close eye on its ad agency Grey. Could it be the first incumbent of recent years to weather the retail storm?