Saatchi's New Task: Cast Walmart as the Underdog

Retail Giant Expands Agency's Role in Holiday Ramp-Up

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Walmart gets called many things, but rarely is it accused of being touchy feely with its ads or likened to David in a battle with Goliaths.

And while the retail giant isn't giving up its price focus, it is looking to both forge better emotional ties with shoppers and take on an underdog role, according to U.S. Chief Marketing Officer Stephen Quinn.

As part of those new creative directions, it has expanded the role of Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, from work on the retailer's corporate image advertising to upcoming holiday ads. These include a tear-jerker of a spot in which a little girl saves money to buy dozens of tennis balls at Walmart, presented as wrapped gifts for nursing-home residents, who are puzzled until they realize they're meant for play during a surprise visit by an onslaught of dogs.

Mr. Quinn showed the ad during a presentation at the University of Arkansas Center for Retail Excellence in Fayetteville Oct. 9. Afterward, he acknowledged that longtime lead agency Martin, Richmond, Va., "probably isn't pleased" about Saatchi's expanded role, but noted that it also hasn't complained, and that there is plenty of work for everyone as the retailer ramps up production to handle a growing amount of creative for digital, TV and other channels.

"Walmart has a number of agency partners, as they have for years," Martin said in a statement. "We have shared the responsibility for the general market work with Saatchi for more than a year. As always, Martin and all Walmart's agencies are fully engaged and committed to making the holiday campaign the best it can be."

Walmart has opened a "holiday hub" to produce thousands of creative executions for the season in one place, Mr. Quinn said, led by Andy Murray, former Saatchi & Saatchi X CEO and now senior-VP Creative at Walmart. To produce ads for suppliers on Walmart.com, such as a recent Vine campaign for Hillshire Farms, the retailer also has turned to Swirl, San Francisco, said Donata Maggipinto, creative director of content for Walmart.com in a presentation at Content Marketing World conference in Cleveland last month.

Saatchi's "Love" ad with tennis balls and puppies isn't exactly a sign Walmart has gone soft, as Mr. Quinn sees it. But the 2013 initiative that involved shooting more than 1,500 local price-comparison ads has given way to focus on the new Savings Catcher price-comparison and price-match guarantee app.

And the retailer, besides focusing on the softer side of its "Save money. Live better." slogan, is also trying to pull off an even harder trick – regaining its competitive mojo by re-assuming its historical role as David – as opposed to the retail Goliath it's become.

"We were very comfortable in David's skin, slaying these retail giants. But one day we woke up and we were actually Goliath," Mr. Quinn said "So the whole goal of the past decade has been trying to get ourselves back into the role of David."

That's part of the impetus, he said, behind Walmart's efforts in recent years to take on issues bigger than itself – from bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. to championing sustainability.

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