A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

I work at what used to be a great (independent) creative agency. Or at least it was until it was acquired by a network. Under the old set-up, I used to shine; but, these days, all the founding partners seem to care about is their earn-outs. Gone are the days when we had ample time to do great work; the culture has shifted dramatically to a much more production-line approach. I’ve been with the business since the start and am tempted to speak up. If I do pluck up the courage, is there anything I can say that will realistically make a difference or would I actually do my long-term prospects more harm than good?

I wish I’d worked, at some stage in my life, for an independent creative agency. As I think I may have mentioned before, Stephen King and I did once think of starting one and we had a cheap Italian lunch to talk about it. By the end of lunch, we’d agreed that the role of managing director was crucial, that neither of us was remotely qualified to be the managing director and that we didn’t know anyone who was. We also agreed that we were having a wonderful time where we were and were getting adequately rewarded for doing it. The bill came to £12.9s.6d, which we split. (Stephen always kept his change in a purse, which I think may have been another reason we decided not to start our own agency.)

So I don’t know what it’s like to be a great independent creative agency, nor what it’s like to find oneself suddenly part of a network. I joined a network agency that had been a network agency since 1899 and left it many years later just as it was becoming part of something that was destined to be a home to many networks. I’m conscious, therefore, that I’m more than usually ill-equipped to opine on matters of agency ownership and the advantages and disadvantages that different kinds of owners may or may not bring with them.

But I have thought about it quite a lot and have reached a conclusion. Agencies are best when they’re staffed by good people. After that, the matter of ownership is almost irrelevant.

Your question notes a dramatic change in agency culture, for the worse, as an immediate consequence of being acquired. You don’t specifically allocate blame. It’s possible that the new owners, burdened by the debt incurred in making the acquisition, imposed vice-like embargoes on salaries, pitches, business class, bonuses, staff welfare and client entertainment. (The interesting thing about such diktats is that they can destroy the morale of an agency long before the first effect of them has been actually felt. Just as a bowl of toffee apples in reception can raise it.)

Or it’s possible, as you strongly imply, that it’s been the observed behaviour of your founder partners that’s done the damage. From being the risk-taking, swashbuckling adventurers you’d have paid to work for, they’ve revealed themselves to be the self-obsessed, mean-spirited, money-driven slugs they claimed they left their last agency to escape. And that I find depressingly believable.

So I’ll tell you, if you’ve got the gall for it, what you can do. Tell them why you joined them and worked for them and talked them up. Tell them that they now come across as self-obsessed, mean-spirited, money-driven slugs who don’t give a shit for the trade they once claimed to adore. And tell them you’re off.

You never know: it might work. If they’re good people, it will. And if it doesn’t, you’re well out of it.
I’ve just joined a new agency in a junior role and, so far, they’ve done nothing but talk about how to meld into their culture. I’m worried because I don’t feel part of a ‘culture’ yet. Do you think they’ll realise and kick me out?

Is this new agency a new agency or just new to you? If it’s a new agency, it may be feeling its way towards a culture but it can’t yet have one. And if it’s an established agency, it shouldn’t be talking about its culture, it should just be living it. Are you sure you’ve made the right choice?

What do you think the maximum length a TV ad should be?

Half the length you thought you needed when you first sat down to write it.

Dear Jeremy, Is unpaid work more credible than paid work?

So those hoping not to pay you would like you to think. Don’t fall for it.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE