Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

By Jeremy Bullmore, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 13 June 2008 12:00AM

Q: I'm the creative director at an agency that is extremely process- and admin-heavy. Creative department numbers are dwarfed when compared with the suits, and creative representation doesn't exist on the board.

I know I'm being greedy, but I've got two questions I'd like you to answer. Do you think creative representation at the highest level is necessary, and also what function do you think creative people fulfil on the board?

A: Agency boards used to be very small. They were legally necessary and primarily functional. In an agency of 700 people, perhaps six would-be Directors. None would be creative. Then rampant inflation set in. Account directors claimed that their most important clients were now insisting on being represented by a main board director. This was occasionally true. Departmental heads then put in a bid for equality of recognition and a re-discovery of creativity opened the door to the painters and decorators. In less than 20 years, board membership went from being primarily functional to being primarily iconic. Every other person on the payroll was a director - and you certainly couldn't hire anyone remotely worthwhile unless a directorship came too as an on-pack offer.

That's why your questions are interesting. I doubt if any canny client would ever say, "I see that GBH have no less than seven creative Johnnies on their board! They must be a terrifically creative agency!" But they will certainly say, "Odd that GBH doesn't seem to have a single creative on their board ... what's their work like?" So if only for reasons of reputation, no sane agency today will be without creative representation at board level. And if they haven't got a candidate of adequate ability, they should go out and find one immediately.

But you go on to ask, what function do creative people fulfil on a board? And that's a good question because not every creative person asks it. To many, it's simply a mark of status, something to tell your mum about, not an accepted obligation to contribute.

Here are a few things a good creative on a board can do.

Make sure that the work is an integral part of meetings, not simply an optional pre-lunch peep show. Encourage open comment about it. Praise any deserving work that may not be self-evidently praiseworthy (there's always some). Contribute to the agency's own brand-building - and if there isn't any, get it going. And listen very carefully: because some of the apparently craven decisions that are made by those philistine suits on the executive floor may turn out on closer examination to be a great deal less worse than the alternatives. A grown-up creative on the board, with no threat to personal principles, can be a hugely valuable intermediary between the executive and the all-important workers.

Q: People keep talking about "brand experience", but are vague about its definition. Would considering the nature of 'brand inexperience' help?

A: I suspect people who use phrases like brand experience are indeed extremely vague about what they mean and are entirely content that everyone else should be, too.

All trades are guilty to some extent but it does seem to me that ours is more guilty than most. Four-hour meetings are routinely conducted in a language fully understood by not one of the 15 people present. And no one ever says, "Excuse me, but what exactly does that mean?" Newcomers don't because it would reveal their ignorance and old-stagers don't for the same reason. Everyone assumes that they alone remain mystified, whereas in truth the mystification is universal. (In more than 30 years, I never once dared ask what a Gross Rating Point was.)

I like your suggestion. Through inversion, the truth often becomes more evident. Brand inexperience seems, to me, very clearly to apply to those holding opinions about things they've never physically encountered. In 1974, Tom Rayfield and I invented a poster that still earns the occasional resurrection. It featured a glass of Guinness and three bottles and the caption read, "I've never tried it because I don't like it." The then Archbishop of Canterbury referred to it approvingly as evidence of something extremely important, though I forget what.

In my more cynical moments it seems to me that brand experience is what we used to call sampling. But you couldn't build a 21st-Century business on sampling, could you?

Would "trucks" have been better if the gorilla had been driving?

Much.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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