Close-Up: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Greg Grimmer of ZenithOptimedia writes: I am puzzled by the recent fascination with salary levels. Is it just me or is the advertising world (and Campaign's) fascination with salaries detrimental to the welfare of the business as a whole? In this most capitalist of industries, don't people earn what their employer thinks they are worth?

A: Dear Greg, many thanks for this timely question. Old Masters and Young Turks have this in common: the only way to establish how much they're worth is to find out how much people are prepared to pay for them. In this respect, I agree with you. No regulator, government or media pundit should attempt to interfere with the way of the market. However, we're still entitled to be fascinated by the prices paid for both - and I can't see that either the art business or the advertising business suffers as a result.

In fact, of course, the prices paid for Young Turks are doubly fascinating because, unlike Old Masters, Young Turks often turn out to be turkeys: and this is why.

A lot of people in our trade, highly intelligent and extremely able, are also deeply insecure. Their insecurity contributes greatly to their ability to perform: it's neither pride nor vanity that propels them but fear of failure. They win awards, attract clients, get featured in diary columns and are invited to speak on prestigious platforms. Yet qualitative success is not enough for them: like nervous clients, they need the reassurance of numbers. How good am I? How much do you love me, value me, want me? What am I worth? Please put a number on it.

As Katharine Whitehorn observed many years ago, chaps need high salaries not because chaps need the money but because that's how chaps keep score.

(Chaps, of course, like Young Turks, come in a wide variety of genders.)

And here's the funny bit. When an Old Master gets snapped up for £35 million, it doesn't go to the Old Master's head. But when a Young Turk finally gets someone to pay him a million potatoes a minute, he seizes on it as objective evidence of his value. So (and let me put this with as much clarity as I can muster): since it was only his insecurity that made him worth the money in the first place; and the immediate effect of the money is to eliminate that insecurity; so it is that the money he was worth makes him instantly worth less. And because he has now replaced insecurity with over-confidence, he is the only person not to notice.

I do hope you've followed all that: and may now begin to understand why we'll all continue to be fascinated by salary levels.

Q: Dear Jeremy, every week we get cosy all-staff e-mails from our chief executive reassuring us that things are stable and ticking along nicely. Meanwhile, barely a week goes by without the trade press running a story about yet another piece of our business being under threat. Which should I believe?

A: Since you're in advertising, I assume you understand the principle of competitive persuasion. Agency employees, like the consumers of alcopops, pot noodles and pension plans, shouldn't expect any one source to hold a monopoly of objective truth. In order to achieve stability, your management needs to pretend to a stability greater than it currently enjoys. There's nothing improper about this; it's part of good management.

Equally, when the trade press implies instability, it knows it will be contributing to that instability. But there's nothing improper about this, either; it's not the job of the trade press to purvey propaganda, however worthy the cause. Listen to both sources with great care and an open mind.

One or the other might be right. Both have been known to be wrong. Events rather than assertions will soon reveal the truth.

- Jeremy Bullmore is a former chairman of J. Walter Thompson and a director of WPP. He also writes a monthly column for Management Today. He welcomes questions via campaign@haynet.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.

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