A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch: Can clients be creative too?

What is it about the word "creative" that renders grown-ups' brains to mush?

Dear Jeremy, I’ve read that clients can be creative now and that creativity isn’t just the preserve of creative departments in ad agencies. Is this true? I’m a bit worried if so, since I’ve never considered myself to be in the slightest bit creative.

What is it about the word "creative" that renders grown-ups’ brains to mush?

You’ve read (but don’t say where you read it or by whom it was written) that clients "can be creative now".

This can mean only one of two things.

1. Until very recently, all clients have been utterly devoid of creativity. But now, overnight presumably, they’ve been miraculously infused with a soaring imagination. Or:

2. Although generously endowed with creativity from birth, clients have hitherto been forbidden (perhaps by ISBA or the IPA?) from employing it as part of their professional work. That ban has now been lifted.

In real life, creativity, and people who are believed to be creative, induce in otherwise well-grounded people a sort of awe verging on superstition. Entirely happy to challenge a marketing manager on the calculated effect of a banded offer on case sales in the fourth quarter, a brand manager may be rendered opinion-less when confronted by a beard and a black T-shirt.

It’s well-known that a bottle label evocative of rural France can enhance the enjoyment of the wine within. A sugar pill taken from a pack designed for a powerful analgesic will be more efficacious against pain than a sugar pill taken from a packet of sugar pills. If you’ve ever wondered why the dress code of creative people in advertising agencies is so uniformly non-conformist, it’s for exactly the same reason. A script presented by a pair of lilac dungarees and open-toed sandals will promise more creativity than one presented by someone who looks like Philip Larkin.

Of course, clients – some clients – can be creative: but not at the sharp end. They can think inventively, they can plan imaginatively, they can sniff out the potential of a stumbling first draft. The best ones have always been able to do this. But what they will never be able to do – by themselves, all alone – is the final, finished, finely polished job. And there’s a straight­forward reason for this: it’s not what they’re paid for.

If creative people knew there was another department behind them – a backstop supergroup, perhaps, to be used in emergencies when the creative spark refused to ignite – their success rate would stall. They’d give up too soon.

But because they know there isn’t; because they know that if they don’t crack it, nobody will because that’s what they’re paid for; more often than not, they will.

Dear Jeremy, My ad agency has just been offered the meaty creative account of one of my rival brands (the chief exe­cutives of client and agency play golf together). Apparently, they’re about to take this big new piece of business and ask me to find a new agency. Should I make a moral case or just accept that my rival’s bigger budget has won the day?

If you’ve been one of those clients who have unleashed your procurement hitmen on your agencies – forcing them to trim fees, extend payment terms to 120 days and do more and more for less and less or else – then I have some sympathy with the management of your agency. Grasping clients make the soppiest of agencies turn flinty-eyed.

But I hope and suspect that, on the whole, you’ve been a good and grateful client, occasionally saying thank you and even paying for the drinks that time in Scarborough. So I’m sad that they’re doing the dirty on you, because that’s what it is.

I’m not sure morality comes into it but manners certainly do. It seems that they’ve decided to dump you but neglected to mention it. You could never repair this relationship even if you wanted to.

Of course, an agency that earns a reputation for dumping good clients in favour of bigger ones will soon find itself on fewer and fewer shortlists; but I wouldn’t expect you to take any comfort from that. Certainly not.

Dear Jeremy, I kissed my client in Cannes recently. I rather liked it. Would it be an awful idea to do it again?


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