On the Campaign couch
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

Does Parkinson's law of triviality apply to the procurement process?

The wonderful Professor C Northcote Parkinson published Parkinson’s law in 1957 and I find it sad and astonishing that no equivalent mind seems to have emerged since.

His law of triviality was part of his wider law on management. It stated that "the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved" and was illustrated by what became known as bikeshedding.

A management committee has been asked for formal approval on two items: a multimillion-pound nuclear reactor and a bicycle shed for the clerical staff. Because the case for the nuclear reactor is so technical and complicated, and because the sums of money involved are so vast, the committee members have no choice but to assume that the experts know what they’re talking about. Approval is granted in two-and-a-half minutes.

But everybody knows about bicycle sheds, or thinks they know about bicycle sheds, and many members, for example, have strong views on the ideal composition of the roof: "Discussion goes on, therefore, for 45 minutes, with the possible result of saving some £50. Members at length sit back with a feeling of accomplishment."

So to return to your question: does Parkinson’s law of triviality apply to the [agency] procurement process? And the answer I think is yes and no; but, if anything, not enough.

It’s certainly true that procurement experts are happiest when dealing with bike sheds: simple, easily understood concepts whose approximate costs can be easily established and then haggled over for hours on end.

But in the case of the nuclear reactor, by far the most expensive item on the agenda, the committee had faith in the experts (because they had no choice) and gave it immediate approval. In agency negotiations, the equivalent of the nuclear reactor is the potential value that an excellent agency can add to a client’s business. Like the nuclear reactor, that’s extremely complicated; but unlike the nuclear reactor, it’s not tangible. In fact, it’s distressingly intangible.

Procurement people can be force-fed any number of IPA Effectiveness papers or reports from the Deutsche Bank research team that demonstrate beyond challenge the relationship between brand communication and brand profit; but, unfortunately, where the Parkinsonian committee members chose to trust the experts, procurement executives blindly choose to ignore them.

In the 70s, Stanley Pollitt used to advise account executives that, when choosing a wine for a client lunch, ‘about halfway down the claret list’ was best. Given price inflation, is this still correct?

Do you, by any chance, work in procurement? Even 40 years later, halfway down is still halfway down.

My agency is recommending that we provide high-net-worth individuals in the target market for our super-yachts with iSmell computer cartridges to add the smell of leather to their user experience when they view our website. I’m worried that the brand name will cause offence but, from your knowledge of oligarchs’ sense of humour, are my fears groundless?

I have some trouble with the idea of oligarchs hunched over their laptops summoning up super-yacht price-comparison websites. All the oligarchs I know have their yachts sent round.

People ask the question ‘How d’you do?’ and, when I start to tell them, they have already moved on to say something else. Why ask the question in the first place?

You know the answer perfectly well, you boring old fart. There’s a need in language for meaningless noises. So we adopt certain phrases and then systematically drain them of meaning. It’s only while the original meaning is still alive that irritation sets in. English, sadly, doesn’t have a prego; so when you say "thank you" and the waitress says "no problem", I expect you to quip: "And to which potential problem might you be alluding, young lady?" Quite soon, "no problem" will be as devoid of meaning as "How d’you do?" I hope.

"Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP

Topics