Jeremy Bullmore
Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: A client writes: There's quite a lot of well-meaning concern about the levels of stress in agencies but I thought the whole point was that they earn their money by working under conditions that we clients don't wish to. Therefore, isn't stress good for them?

A: I've read your question seven times and still don't understand it. You may be saying that agencies shouldn't complain about working under stress because they get paid to do so; in other occupations, it's called danger money. But you then go on to suggest that, because agencies are paid to live with stress, stress is therefore good for them: and that's a corollary I don't follow. What I think your question actually reveals is guilt; and you're trying to rationalise your way out of it. You have a lurking suspicion that outsourcing stress is a bit like getting someone else to take your penalty points on their driving licence and you'd like to be able to convince yourself that it isn't.

The agency market, in all disciplines, is over-supplied - so competition is fierce. There are no European Union employment laws that prohibit client companies from firing their agencies without notice or reason. No agency is going to take an ex-client to court in the hope of getting such a decision reversed and compensation paid. No client company, however questionable its agency record, has ever found itself denied agency access. The IPA has yet to blacklist an advertiser.

What all this means is that the agency trade, of all trades, is probably the least likely to succumb to complacency. I've no doubt that, seen through the eyes of clients, certain people in certain agencies have at certain times exhibited symptoms of complacency; but it's usually not so much complacency as the effect of terrified agency people trying so hard not to look terrified that they radiate mulish self-satisfaction.

Ralph Nader has often said he has a theory about power: it can be exercised responsibly only so long as it remains insecure. That's why dictatorships and monopolies are eventually and invariably abused. The agency business, over-supplied and hyper-competitive, is if anything too insecure. To live, permanently, just one telephone call from oblivion is no way to live. And this is where you, as a client, can help a lot - and even alleviate your latent guilt a bit.

The stress that you refer to comes in two quite distinct forms; and only one of them is productive.

Productive stress encourages inventiveness, originality and perfectionism. It's fuelled by pride, ambition, vanity and deadlines rather than anything crudely quantifiable such as money. The need to deliver something new, original, relevant and by Thursday week is quite stressful enough without external threat. The good client knows this and appreciates it. This is the kind of stress that a client quite properly subcontracts. Without it, little of wonder would ever see the light of day.

And then there's unproductive stress, or counterproductive stress, where the client - either through ignorance or in pursuit of that unhealthy pleasure enjoyed by bullies - turns the screw of insecurity to the point where an agency becomes so insecure that it descends into directionless immobility.

No client should need to remind an agency of the inherent asymmetry of their relationship. The best clients know when to release the pressure as well as inflate it; that way, experiment, adventure and the occasional inevitable failure are fondly indulged rather than ruthlessly punished.

Q: Dear Jeremy, I'm a creative director hired by a big, "traditional" agency due to my ability to deliver award-winning digital work. I'm finding the transition a little difficult due to the glacial pace at which some of the creative teams generate the little work that they do. Any ideas on how to chivvy them along a bit?

A: Summon your traditional creative teams to a meeting. Remind them that digital has already taken over half the world and that you, personally, can generate a dozen award-winning digital ideas in the time it takes most of them to understand the problem. Tell them, if they want to postpone the moment when digital takes over the other half of the world, that they'll have to abandon their last-century Luddite practices and sharpen up. From now on, they'll have a set time limit of three days between brief and presentation to your good self.

That should set the tone.

Then pour them a drink and ask them to come back to you in a week's time with some practical ideas on how to speed up the creative process with no loss of quality. They will.

"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.

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