At Grocer Piggly Wiggly, Agency Was Also the Client

Case Study: Retailer Tapped Rawle Murdy Chief to Run Marketing

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NEW YORK ( -- When America's first self-serve grocery store needed to bolster recession-depressed revenue and modernize its old-school marketing department, it asked the president of its agency to take on a second job: chief marketer.

Bruce Murdy
Bruce Murdy
With dropping wholesale prices in a part of the country saturated with Walmarts and customers trading down because of the recession, Piggly Wiggly needed to sell more to just break even. And President-CEO of Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co. David Schools didn't think its 12-person marketing team moved at the pace of fast-to-market grocery retail, or at the pace of the 21st century for that matter.

"Our sales had not been where we wanted them based on lots of factors," said Mr. Schools. "My main concern was that our marketing initiative had lost touch with our retail operation."

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The then-marketing chief left the company and Mr. Schools went to Bruce D. Murdy, president of Piggly Wiggly's 24-year agency, for advice. By the end of the conversation, he'd offered Mr. Murdy the job.

In April, Mr. Murdy moved into the role of Piggly Wiggly's interim marketing director and continued to serve as president of Charleston, S.C., agency Rawle Murdy, which reported $34 million capitalized billings for 2008. Until this week, when a permanent marketing chief takes over, Mr. Murdy, who'd worked on the grocer's account for 22 years, spent nearly half his time at Piggly Wiggly.

'Changing culture'
There, he was tasked with restructuring a marketing staff that wasn't used to sharing between ad, research or internal-communication divisions. No one had accepted responsibility for the chain's website and e-mail marketing. "The biggest challenge I had was changing culture," he said. "It was the spark the marketing department needed to start changing, someone to encourage them to try things."

So Mr. Murdy installed a digital marketing head and passed out copies of Spencer Johnson's "Who Moved My Cheese." He moved people around within the department and to other roles in the company. He asked each member of his staff for ideas that could be implemented right away. He patched communication between marketing people and from management to the department. (For all this, Mr. Murdy did not receive a Piggly Wiggly salary, though the agency received an additional fee.)

Mr. Murdy also reworked Piggly Wiggly's media strategy and steered the Southeast grocery chain back to mass-media channels. Piggly Wiggly went back on TV, after more than a year.. That effort was supplemented with social media efforts.

"From a sales standpoint, when we began to increase our media presence in TV, print and radio and nontraditional social-media channels, we saw significant percentage increase in sales," Mr. Schools said. "Internally, he enhanced the department. He inherited a situation where people didn't know what other people were doing and reenergized creativity."

This week, Mr. Murdy hands off his work to Christopher Ibsen, who was hired from within Piggly Wiggly to maintain Mr. Murdy's changes for the longterm.

Could this work for other marketers? Could an agency person get tapped to be, as Mr. Schools puts it, a marketing-department "coach"?

"This type of situation is a win-win for agencies and for clients, who can benefit from opening their doors more by letting agencies truly understand a broader picture of their business," Mr. Murdy said.

"I wouldn't be so bold as to recommend this to other people, because this was based on trust," Mr. Schools said. "I would say if you have the trust of the agency you're working with, that this is something that can work."

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