On The Campaign Couch...with JB
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On The Campaign Couch...with JB

Q: I was in the pub with two friends who also work in advertising last week, and we were telling each other about our agency's own culture.

That's when it struck us: that all three came down to the same point of making great work. So why do agencies spend so much energy on defining their culture, when we're all aiming to do the same thing? Wouldn't it be better to just accept that we're not all that different, really?

A: I'm sorry you're obviously not a regular reader of this column. Or perhaps you are but choose to take no notice of it. If so, I quite understand. In any event, I ask other readers to excuse a degree of repetition.

As I've mentioned more than once before, agencies are fascinating examples of brands. They rarely advertise but, at least to 3 per cent of the population, many have well-defined personalities. Like all brand personalities, theirs aren't owned by the agencies; they are formed inside people's heads as a result of all manner of stimuli. They are therefore entirely subjective.

Curiously, though, in what's been called a consensus of subjectivity, there will be a great deal of agreement across those minds. Ask agency people, marketing people, trade press people or intermediaries to paint you a word picture of any reasonably prominent agency and you'll find, with no conferring, an astonishing degree of accord.

No two agencies have exactly the same personality. For those who know anything about brands, that's a truism; if a brand isn't unique, it isn't a brand. But since the human brain can't entertain the concept of brand parity, brand parity (unlike product parity) doesn't exist. Similarities exist, certainly; but parities, no.

The mistake you make is confusing that shared objective, "making great work", with the different ways that different people go about trying to make it; or with their culture, if you're feeling poncey.

Here are just a few of the clues from which agency brand characteristics are educed:

The work. Nationality. Clients. History: Est. 1864 or 2010? Ownership. Size. Rank. Trend. Digital? New business. Awards.

Office location. Office interior. Believed characterstics of top persons. Press releases and PR.

As with any brand, each agency is rated not absolutely but relatively. So some of these clues may be determined by management but at least as many will be determined by the reputations of competitors. There's room on the map, if not in the market, for an infinite number of agencies; all trying to do much the same thing - and all of them different.

Q: Dear Jeremy, we've been shortlisted for a brand even though we have a brand within the same sector on our books already. I'm concerned about the future of the brand we're currently working with and don't want to miss out on a new client. But I'm worried that if we resign the account we have now, we might be left with nothing. What would you advise?

A: The first thing I'd advise you to do is give some thought to the brand that's already entrusted itself to your care. The marketing market doesn't like fair weather agencies - and neither do I. You say you're concerned about your current client's future. It doesn't seem to have occurred to you that your current client may be hoping that you'll apply the talent and experience he's paying for and make his future brighter.

There are clients who doubt whether their agencies' objectives, which often seem to be little more than pot-hunting, are sufficiently aligned with their own; which, prosaically, are more to do with sales and profit. You're doing a great job in confirming such a suspicion.

You hesitate to resign this account, not because you might be abandoning a paying client in time of need but because, should you fail to capture the more attractive new one, you'd be left with nothing. How does that rate on a ten-point scale of business ethics, I wonder? Did you make it clear when you joyously accepted the business that your continuing joy would be conditional on your not being confronted with a juicier alternative?

If it had any sense, the moment it knew you'd ditched your old account to take part in the pitch, the sexy potential one would publicly strike you from the list. If you can do that once, you can do it again. Should that happen, you'd be left not only with no business but also a widespread reputation for both sharp practice and incompetence. Your other clients might want a word as well. Do a fantastic job for your existing client. And leave the sexy new one admiring your principles and deeply regretting that you were unavailable.

"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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