Harvey Nichols: The Provocateurs

The fashion and luxury industries have a reputation for seriousness, but over the last decade and a half luxury department store Harvey Nichols, with its ad agency adam&eveDDB, has shown that its customers will respond to humour too, especially if it comes with an edge. The brand’s marketing work may have received as many complaints as it has awards, but is impossible to ignore – we take an in-depth look at it here.

The fashion and luxury industries have a reputation for seriousness, but over the last decade and a half luxury department store Harvey Nichols, with its ad agency adam&eveDDB, has shown that its customers will respond to humour too, especially if it comes with an edge. The brand’s marketing work may have received as many complaints as it has awards, but is impossible to ignore – we take an in-depth look at it here.

There are certain brands which have a body of ads that are interesting enough, consistent enough, that whenever a new piece of work drops, there is an immediate rush to view. This is increasingly rarefied ground these days. The John Lewis Christmas ad. Honda. Nike, for the big sporting events at least. Old Spice, perhaps. Also in this group, sliding in with a cheeky wink, is UK luxury department store Harvey Nichols.

Rewards App ad. CCO: Ben Priest; ECDs: Ben Tollett, Richard Brim; Creatives: Colin Booth, Ben Stilitz; Directors: Layzell Bros, Blinkink

Walk of Shame ad. ECD: Jeremy Craigen; Creatives: Mike Crowe, Rob Messeter; Director: James Rouse, Outsider

 

Harvey Nicks, to use the nickname that most Brits know the store by, has a reputation for outrage, for making its audiences gasp and giggle simultaneously. In July it released an ad for its new Rewards app. A fairly dull product to advertise, you might think. But Harvey Nichols managed to capture news headlines across the UK’s national press and all over the net with an eye-catching spot featuring genuine CCTV footage from the store’s security cameras, which showed people stealing items. Their faces were disguised with comical cartoon faces designed by The Layzell Brothers, but the scenes spared viewers nothing, with the thieves shown being apprehended, sometimes violently, by security guards and thrown into holding rooms. The spot ended with the tagline: ‘Love freebies? Get them legally.’

This is the brand that in amongst the gloss and glamour of the Christmas market has thrown out a number of curve balls: in 2011 it released a film titled ‘Walk of Shame’, showing a series of women, damaged and broken by the excesses of the Christmas party the night before, making their way home in full regalia in the cold morning light, while around them office workers and grannies looked on disapprovingly. Only one woman, glamorous and poised in a Harvey Nichols dress, could hold her head high.

For Christmas 2013, the brand wound up the cheek level even further, releasing a range of gift products, actually stocked in the store, titled ‘Sorry, I Spent It On Myself’, which included a bag of gravel priced at £1.61 and toothpicks at 47p. The accompanying ad had an endline summing up the campaign’s message neatly: “A little something for them, a bigger something for you”. Yet more surprising, in a ‘did they really go there?’ way, was one of the brand’s sale campaigns, from 2012, which featured a series of immaculately dressed models who appeared to have wet themselves. “The Harvey Nichols Sale. Try to contain your excitement’ was the tag.

Even when the brand produces more innocuous work – such as another sales campaign from 2014 showing men and women in clothes that are either far too small or too large for them, with the line ‘Best get there early’ – there is an element of discomfort in the work, as well as a laugh. For running through all of Harvey Nichols’ advertising is the notion of desperation, and how this can be funny, as well as painful.

Sorry, I Spent It On Myself campaign. ECDs: Ben Tollett, Ben Priest; Creatives: Richard Brim, Daniel Fisher; Photographer: James Day; Director: James Rouse, Outsider

Harvey Nichols has worked with ad agency adam&eveDDB for 15 years now, stretching back to the time when the agency was known as DDB London. Michelle Gilson, planning director at the agency, describes the brand’s positioning as “playful in attitude and daring in delivery”. “Its relatively small size versus the Goliaths of the market mean it has always relied on a bit more bite and personality in order to cut through,” she adds.

It is this bite, and the brand’s quiet acknowledgement of the sour underbelly of shopping that makes its ads so compelling. They are not alone in this arena: Selfridges has long used a series of sales posters designed by artist Barbara Kruger which underline the pain of sales shopping, as well as the pleasure. Set in Kruger’s classic style of black Futura Bold Italic text set against white stripes with a red border, the posters feature phrases such as ‘You Want It. You Buy It. You Forget It’ and ‘It’s You. It’s New. It’s Everything. It’s Nothing’. But Harvey Nichols has taken this boldly ironic (some might say cynical) approach to a whole new level.

Bad Fit campaign. ECDs: Ben Tollett, Ben Priest; Creatives: Richard Brim, Daniel Fisher; Photographer: Matt Irwin

 

Unsurprisingly, it has earned the brand criticism as well as applause. The Advertising Standards Authority in the UK received complaints over the Walk of Shame spot for being “offensive” and “demeaning to women”, while the incontinent models posters received complaints for again being offensive, and for the possible distress they might cause to those who suffer from bladder problems.

The Rewards ad, featuring the CCTV footage, also prompted complaints to the ASA and received criticism in the press, including CR, for possibly exposing the identities of the thieves. Of the back story for how this ad came about and what the agency did to prevent it being banned, Paul Billingsley, business director at adam&eveDDB explains: “Our creative team came up with the shoplifting concept for the overall campaign and it was a bonus when we found out the team at Harvey Nichols were able to make the CCTV footage available to us specifically for the viral film.

“In terms of using the CCTV footage,” he continues, “we needed to make sure that we only used footage where we were sure an offence had been carried out and the matter had been dealt with. We also had to ensure that the identities of the shoplifters in the footage were protected by covering their faces. In doing so, we knew this would reduce the risk of complaint.”

Headless chickens campaign. ECDs: Ben Tollett, Emer Stamp, Ben Priest; Creatives: Nikki Lindman, Toby Brewer; Photographer: Daniel Steir

Despite the objections to its ads, Harvey Nichols has escaped censure by the ASA in all these examples, although some mainstream media did choose to run the incontinence ads without the wet patches, rather ruining the joke. It is the humour that runs through the campaigns which allows the brand to get away with it every time: yes, their messages are provocative but beyond all else, they are clearly not meant to be taken at face value. “Fashion has a tendency to take itself much too seriously,” says Anna Davidson, head of marketing at Harvey Nichols, “something we actively try to avoid with our marketing.

“We know from the responses that we get in our stores and on social that the Harvey Nichols customer has a sense of humour,” she continues. “Like us, they are playful in attitude. We approach all our campaigns and marketing with a dash of humour – it’s been part of our brand identity for decades and is something that resonates with not only our loyal customers but also the wider public.”

And, as is often the case with advertising, with controversy comes reward. Harvey Nichols has been showered with awards, with the Sorry I Spent It On Myself campaign alone picking up 62 industry gongs, including numerous Grand Prix Cannes Lions awards in 2014. It is no wonder then that Billingsley describes the client as “an absolute joy” to work with. It is a given that agencies won’t badmouth a client in the press of course, but in this instance, the description seems plausible. After all, truly great creative work, especially produced consistently over a long period, is usually only possible when there is a unity of vision between agency and client. “They relish the creative process,” continues Billingsley, “are restless for new ideas and fundamentally believe in the power of creativity to help them stand out on limited budgets in a fiercely competitive market. They’re also a lot of fun and super glamorous; it is fashion, after all.”

“All good advertising is provocative,” continues Ben Tollett, ECD at adam&eveDDB. “If it doesn’t provoke a reaction, there’s no point in doing it. The great thing about working with Harvey Nichols is that they aren’t afraid to take a few risks, and are comfortable with who they are and their luxury positioning.”

Recruitment campaign. CCO: Ben Priest; ECDs: Ben Tollett, Richard Brim; Creatives: Colin Booth, Ben Stilitz

 

It is important to note too, that while the brand’s ads might seemed designed purely to get the column inches, its messaging always extends beyond films and posters and appears throughout the stores as well. “We always make sure that we can effectively execute any of our Harvey Nichols campaigns through the line,” says Tollett. “In the case of Rewards, we worked closely with several internal departments to ensure that the customer experience and communications in store and online were consistent with the theme. We created various shoplifting-related point-of-sale materials, from outside the store to swing tags and tent cards on the shop floor, to projections up the escalators, through to films in the click-and-collect areas and vinyls at the till and changing rooms.” Plus in the case of the Sorry I Spent It On Myself campaign, the gift series itself become coveted objects, driving more customers into the store.

Davidson claims that the brand does not “set out to be controversial” in its marketing, and instead is simply “playful”. This could seem a little disingenuous when considering the amount of times the brand’s work has landed in front of the ASA for review, though perhaps admitting that you’re trying to be controversial is a bit like admitting that you want to be cool: it immediately undermines your intention. And as long as Harvey Nichols errs on the side of comedy, it is likely to continue to get away with its provocative approach. In a world where advertising is so rarely risky and fun nowadays, let’s hope it does.

This article originally appeared in the September issue of Creative Review, which is a fashion special. It is available now

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