This ancient and paradoxical conundrum has one simple root cause: the stubborn reluctance of advertising agencies to come clean about the way they work.
Even the best of agencies, however large, depends for its reputation on 16 per cent of its workforce. This fact is never admitted; it is thought to be shameful and demotivating. Yet it is this fact that is the source both of the problem you define and also its potential solution.
That no more than 16 per cent of your workforce make a significant contribution to your company's professional reputation you know to be true. To concede it, however, is interpreted to mean that your other 84 per cent are worthless; and that, of course, is nonsense. You need them all; but you need them for different things.
We like to pretend agency/client relationships are open-ended assignments, with evenly spread workloads requiring much the same attention from much the same people every day of the week. In believing this, we ignore reality.
In real life, the advertising planning and delivery process is a turbulent one, with clearly defined areas of high and low pressure. When a client puts his business out for tender, you can bet that he's already decided on the need for a fundamental re-evaluation of his brand: it's high-pressure time.
The team you appoint to this task should not be the least extended of your 17 standard groups. It should be the team most able, on its record, to undertake that fundamental re-evaluation; and through doing so, to invent a proprietary brand position that, with constant vigilance, will serve it well for the lifetimes of at least a dozen career-crazed brand managers. It should not be an account group - so deeply immersed in the client's business as to indistinguishable from it - but a project group: with a defined task and limited time in which to achieve it. It may then move on - leaving behind it a legacy of timeless worth.
When next a client insists that the people on the pitch should also be the people who would work on the business day-by-day, remind him of this truth. He may easily have forgotten that the team responsible for the positioning of Kit Kat hasn't worked on the account since 1937.
Q: Shortly after being made CEO, I hired an old girlfriend as my PA. Unfortunately her tongue is as loose as her morals, hence I am losing respect with my staff. How do I get rid of the slattern?
There is only one course of action that offers you certainty of outcome, some semblance of dignity and a proper concern for the company you lead. You must leave it.
You will be no great loss. A man so deficient in judgment should never have been made CEO in the first place. Your staff has rumbled this already.
You will, I trust, feel some residual sense of responsibility for your PA. Your successor will undoubtedly want to choose his own - and with rather more discrimination than you displayed yourself. So be sure you find her another job; but not, I suggest, with your own new company.
Jeremy Bullmore is a former chairman of J. Walter Thompson and a director of WPP. He also writes a monthly column for Management Today. A compilation of his business advice, Another Bad Day at the Office?, is published by Penguin, priced £5.99. Address your problems to him at email@example.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.