Close-up: On the Campaign couch ... with JB

By Jeremy Bullmore, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 20 August 2004 12:00AM

Q: We're a large agency that has lost a number of accounts over the past few years. However, we are getting a lot of revenue from pharmaceutical companies and other large multinationals we can't talk about, and therefore little mention in the press. How do we keep up appearances that actually things aren't as bad as they seem?

A: You puzzle me. What is it about these pharmaceutical companies and other large multinationals that makes them unmentionable? Your unguarded use of the phrase "keep up appearances" prompts me to believe that you can't talk about these mysterious revenues mainly because there's nothing there to talk about.

So let's start by reconstructing your question: We're a large agency that has lost a number of accounts over the past few years, all of which have been widely reported. Our account wins, on the other hand, have received little or no publicity, largely as a result of their being non-existent. How do we keep up appearances that things aren't as bad as they actually are?

That's much better: a perfectly reasonable request and one that will strike a familiar chord with many a reader.

Keeping up appearances is not a recommended long-term strategy. Impecunious dukes may secretly sell off the silver and the last 25 cases of the Quinta do Noval '27 - but sooner or later, the grass in the parkland grows long and dank and the scullery maid goes un-replaced. People notice. And so it is with companies. You have no more than a year to re-align performance with appearance.

This may be done in one of two ways. You either inflate your performance until it matches your appearance; or you deflate your appearance until it matches your performance. Of the two, I favour the first; but I expect you've already tried that.

Q: Recently, one of my beautiful ads was slated in Private View and by a respected creative director, too. The whole agency has been sympathetically patting me on the back and telling me it doesn't matter ... it doesn't, does it?

A: Silly old you: no, of course it does not matter. It doesn't matter the teeniest little bit - or anyway not in the way you fear.

It's far, far worse than that.

If your colleagues had held you in even the faintest affection ... if they genuinely felt that your beautiful ad had been criminally defamed by an envious competitor ... they would have maintained a sympathetic silence.

Every week, decorously determined not to intrude on the grief of respected friends, thousands of people pretend not to have read Private View. But that, it seems, is not the path your colleagues chose to take.

Painful though it will be, you must ask yourself why. And in case you find the answer elusive, let me provide it for you.

They never shared your view that your beautiful ad was beautiful. Neither do they share your view that you are the cat's pyjamas. For the best part of five years, they have been intimidated by your title, your rumoured income and your relentless self-promotion. They have long suspected their Emperor to be lightly clothed but no small innocent had spoken up; no whistle had been blown.

But now, devastatingly, the whistle has been blown - and not by an innocent but by a widely respected creative director. And so, liberated, emboldened, their suspicions confirmed, your colleagues have found a voice. Each pat on the back, each unctuous reassurance, each variant of hypocrisy: they all expressed just one exultant sentiment: sorry, boyo, but the game's up.

Do not, however, contemplate self-end. As you yourself have demonstrated, charitable colleagues can take as long as five years to see through world-class poseurs. So even if you've still got 15 years to go before retirement, another three cushy billets should see you safely home. Start phoning today.

- Jeremy Bullmore is a director of WPP. He welcomes questions via campaign@haynet.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP. "Ask Jeremy", a collection of his Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone: (020) 8267 4683.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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