Last night, I donned a Christmas cracker hat and dined with Marc Bolland. The hat was his idea.
Just before we tucked into our pudding – a choice of a 16-layer chocolate cake, passion fruit mousse or Christmas pudding served with a delicious dessert wine (all from M&S) – Marc asked the diners: “When is it tradition to pull the crackers? Before or after dinner?” No-one really knew, or dared to make a suggestion. So, the seven of us – Marc, Belinda Earl, me and four other business journalists – crossed arms and pulled. Marc won a yo-yo. He then placed the hat on his head. The rest of us sheepishly looked at each other and did the same. If Marc Bolland wears a cracker hat, then we all wear a cracker hat.
There was something about this moment that said a lot about M&S and its relationship with us – the press and the consumer as, let’s face it, we are both. Despite the problems that M&S has experienced in 2012, certainly in its clothing division, the respect around the table for Marc and the M&S team was unmistakeable. When Marc joined our chatty table between main course and pudding, the chatter came to a dead halt. No-one dared speak before Marc did, individual conversations stopped as we all united to listen to him. Then, as the conversation began to flow, suddenly, everyone had an opinion on what M&S needs to do. This could annoy a lot of people – why should a bunch of journalists know more than a chief executive or a board of directors – but the M&S team understands that the reason everyone has an opinion is because, like the M&S customer, we all care.
Before the cheese course was served, Marc was substituted for John Dixon, M&S’ newly appointed executive director of general merchandise. It was here, as I sampled some mature cheddar and soft camembert, that I was rather impressed (by the conversation that is, but also the cheese). Many in the industry – myself included – were sceptical about John’s appointment and questioned whether he could drive a clothing business with his food background. But each sentence he uttered about M&S’ plans for clothing made complete sense to me. He admitted that M&S had wrongly chased the 20-something customer, but we both agreed that, if done correctly, it can certainly win the hearts of the 30-something. We discussed the huge potential of footwear, the need for clarity within the collections, but also the danger of a radical overhaul. That would frighten the M&S customer. He hit the nail on the head when he said that M&S has some great, individual pieces – as modelled by the waiters and waitresses – but that there weren’t enough of them and they weren’t shouting about them in stores.
It was also good to meet Belinda Earl, M&S’ style director. Like John, her appointment has been criticised by many for its part-time nature, but she spoke confidently and eloquently about the current collection – admitting she had nothing to do with this one – and her plans for the future.
Maybe it was the Christmas spirit engulfing the room, but there was a real sense of honesty in the M&S canteen at the Paddington head office, which had been beautifully, festively dressed. M&S knew it had made some errors in its clothing business, but the new team are hungry to make it a success again, and are willing to listen and share ideas. It bodes well for a prosperous 2013.
Ana Santi, deputy editor, Drapers