1. Dear JB, Your previous advice on the link between no ties, jeans and success in comms has proved invaluable. Your further insight will be appreciated on the career prospects for those wearing long shirts outside vs the inside trousers fraternity. Yours sincerely, John Billett.
Dear JB, thank you for this question. I would have hoped that a man such as yourself, who has attained both material success and high reputation, would long ago have shrugged off the insecurity that your question betrays.
It’s admirable that a person of your seniority should still be so concerned about career prospects. Are there no limits to your ambition? And surely there comes a time when a person has earned the right to establish convention rather than follow it?
Furthermore, there exists an inexorable law of self-branding. It has no name – and, perhaps for that reason, goes widely unrecognised – but it’s this: in all conscious decisions taken by any individual about his or her distinctive appearance, there comes a watershed, a tipping point, beyond which all those cues that have for so long made a positive contribution to personal brand equity almost imperceptibly begin to have a negative effect. The more distinctive those brand cues, the more acute the potential reaction. It could be what keeps Madonna awake at night. Sir Richard Branson, too, may be giving it some thought. In both their cases, the tipping point has yet to be reached – but it can’t be more than a year or two away. Only Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile OBE KCSG has so far dodged the problem – and he did it by choosing to look freakish from the beginning.
Sooner or later, the thrusting young executive with his shirt outside his trousers is going to have to make a decision. If he continues to climb that ladder, and is still looking hungrily at the remaining rungs, he’ll have to tuck that shirt in or look ridiculous. But that’s what’s so good about shirt conventions: unlike beards, flamboyant hair styles or tattoos, when they’ve achieved their first stage objective, they can be abandoned with relatively little comment or embarrassment.
In your case, JB, my strong advice is that you should stay exactly as you are. You brilliantly overcame the disadvantage of dressing boringly when you were young; it’s only right that you should now enjoy the rewards. And well-deserved, too, if I may say so.
2. I am dreading going to Cannes this year. Last year, I spent all my time mainlining rose with some of our dullest clients (the last people I’d want to spend a sunny afternoon on the Croisette with). I wished I was far away. Is it just me?
Interestingly, my spellcheck has just queried "Croisette" and offered "creosote" instead. In a flash, I was prompted to see you back home in Esher, in your Fair Isle jumper, contentedly weatherproofing your garden shed in good time for winter. When you opted for advertising as a career, did you have a second choice? And do you think it might be time to reconsider it?
3. We’re in the midst of our grad recruitment and there are more people turning up than usual called Rupert with floppy hair. I thought our lot would hate this but they’ve come over all Downton on me. How can I stop them trying to recreate the JWT de nos jours?
Given that it’s been around for 100 years or so, I suppose there must have been quite a few Ruperts at JWT London – but I can’t remember any. Rupert Howell never worked there – a pity, really – but even he isn’t particularly floppy-haired. When I joined, the chairman and managing director were called Doug and Bill respectively. (Well, OK: Douglas. But Bill was definitely never William.)
It wasn’t the Ruperts, Julians and Lucindas who earned JWT its reputation as much as the double-barrellers. There weren’t that many, and by no means all were old Etonians, but they were curiously able and rose to the top on merit. When one double-barrel succeeded another as chief executive, the agency village sighed with relief. There’s nothing more welcome than having one’s misconceptions corroborated; it relieves one from the painful business of re-examining one’s prejudices.
Harry, Lord Tennyson, was our single home-grown hereditary peer. Clients liked him very much. Henry Bentinck, the TV producer on Nimble and Mr Kipling, was only Count (Graf) Bentinck und Waldeck Limpurg at the time and it wasn’t until much later that he successfully claimed the title of 11th Earl of Portland. It’s true that two of our number had been at Gordonstoun with Prince Philip and invited him to lunch in the agency: but it was still a bit of a puzzle to us that we had such an upmarket reputation. As we liked to remind people: it was true that we had five MPs on our staff, but only four of them were Tories. Alf Dubs (later, of course, Lord Dubs) was our Labour Party representative. And John Rodgers, the deputy chairman (later, of course, Sir John Rodgers, Bt), was obliged to leave the company when he became a minister. He soon came back.
What continues to baffle ad historians is that, despite being run by nobs and snobs and being out of touch with the real world, JWT London was easily the country’s most successful FMCG agency. With a more down-to-earth reputation, Lord only knows what we might have achieved.
So you see, even if you set out to recreate the JWT de nos jours, you’d have to do more than hire a brace of Ruperts. I think you’re safe enough.
4. Dear Jeremy, Does appearance matter if you work in an ad agency? I’m worried my rather ordinary features and middle-aged dress sense might be holding me back. (I’ve also got moobs but I’m pretty sure because I wear baggy shirts, no-one’s really noticed them.)
Whether you like it or not, you are a brand. I don’t mean that you’ve consciously constructed yourself; I mean that people see people, and that includes you, very much as they see brands. In fact, it would be far more accurate to say that people see brands very much as they see people since people predate brands. There’s no fundamental difference between a brand’s image and a person’s reputation: both are formed from a thousand different contacts, encounters, experiences, bits of hearsay, and all filtered through the prejudices and preconceptions of the individual observer. You remain exactly the same; but your mother’s image of you is quite different from your client’s – or at least I hope so.
Since every small stimulus about you will elicit some sort of response in the mind of every observer, almost certainly below the level of consciousness, it obviously follows that appearance matters: everything does. But don’t take that to mean that you should deliberately set out to change your appearance in the hope of notching up some planned improvement in your personal brand rating. Remember that the brand attribute that people find most reassuring is authenticity. By the sound of it, you’re not, naturally, a cool dude. No-one will be fooled for a second if you start to dress like one. You will go from being that rather dull person with a middle-aged dress sense to that rather dull person pitiably failing to look like a cool dude.
What I suggest you do is to forget about appearance and concentrate on performance. Be quite spectacularly good at what you do. All the time. On everything. Over and over again. And surprisingly quickly, a quite extraordinary transformation in your own brand reputation will take hold. Your ordinary features and middle-aged dress sense, far from holding you back, will become evidence of your astonishing authenticity. Here is a man so authentically able that he has no need of gyms or trainers or combat trousers. Soon you will notice all those young people on work experience turning up at the office in second-hand Montague Burton suits exhumed from charity shops. They, too, have come to believe that their appearance is holding them back; but, unlike you, have foolishly chosen to correct not the steak but the sizzle.
I’ve no idea what you should do about your moobs. They’re not my subject but I doubt if you can make them cool. Staying with those baggy shirts is probably the best answer.
5. I read on a blog recently that Japanese scientists are working to make digital ads interactive so you can kiss the people in them (as you pucker your lips and approach the ad, the person will do the same). Did you ever imagine anything like this would be possible when you were working at JWT all those years ago?
Oh, yes. It’s very much why I got out.
6. Are blogs pointless?
All blogs have a point, if only for one person. And for a dispiriting number of blogs, that’s where it stops. Such bloggers would be better advised to write to themselves, since that’s what they’re doing anyway. But we ought to celebrate the fact that, for the first time ever, almost all human beings can make their voices heard without the intervention of a publisher. How many survive and prosper will, of course, depend on their native ability and a rigorous form of Darwinism. It won’t be many.
7. I’m a 45-year-old male executive creative director and am happily married with kids. I’ve never strayed like many of my peers but, recently, I’ve found myself drawn to one of our young creatives. However, what really confuses me is that it’s another man. Is this just a midlife crisis?
This is not an ad question, but it may have an ad answer: procrastinate. Blurt things out and all hell will break loose – irreversibly. Bottle it up, day by day, and you’ll probably get over it. For everyone’s sake, I hope so.
8. An agency head writes: I have a superstar creative who can turn his hand to anything (writing, directing, sketching, shooting, producing – hell, even account management if he had to). How do I protect him from the thieves, poachers and spangled lights of Hollywood?
Sketching? I thought you were certain to lose this Leonardo until I realised the significance of sketching. Despite his astonishing array of talents, he’s clearly a simple, home-loving lad at heart. So invest in a little aversion therapy. Send him, kicking and screaming, on a paid, four-week trip to Los Angeles. On his own. He’ll hate it. No mates, no Marmite, no Chelsea, no Coach & Horses. Make sure you’re all in the pub the day he gets back, jet-lagged and traumatised. He’ll burst into tears and stay with you for ever.
9. How can we capture the Olympic spirit in the office and keep the momentum going?
Very simply. Win things.
10. In your opinion, which word did Team GB members most overuse when interviewed either before or after their events?