Close-up: On the Campaign couch ... with JB

Q: Paul Keers, the editorial director of Axon Publishing, writes, Dear Mr Bullmore, Why is it that advertising agencies never advertise themselves? Surely this would be the ideal display of their skills to potential clients? Other titles are full of trade ads for DM agencies, branding consultancies, contract publishers and other marketing businesses, all of which similarly interpret client objectives in their particular disciplines - but a marketing director never gets to see an ad for an ad agency. Is this right? A: There are several reasons why advertising agencies seldom advertise. Most of these reasons are shameful; one or two of them are respectable and at least one is sensible.

Setting out to write an ad for your own agency involves serious introspection.

What is our point of difference? If we claim to identify a point of difference for each of our clients, why, mysteriously, can't we find one for ourselves?

So it is that the only ads for agencies that ever appear are those for new agencies. Their point of difference is that they are new. This unarguable fact is then used as somewhat shaky evidence that all existing agencies are thereby obsolete.

A compilation of agency launch ads over the years would make entertaining reading - but perhaps not to those who wrote them. Predictably, of course, new agencies don't stay new for long - which is why the ads soon stop.

Agencies strongly disapprove of their clients reverting to in-house advertising departments on the principled grounds that objectivity is lost. How, then, can an agency be objective about itself? I once, in an unauthorised moment, offered the JWT account to a young and thrusting agency then hogging the headlines. They leapt at the offer and I rubbed my hands. Three days later they called back with apologies. Not a moment too soon, they'd seen through my ruse. If their work had been wonderful, JWT would have benefited mightily ("you see, objectivity works!"). And if their work had been dire, the reputation of a tiresomely attractive competitor would have sustained terminal damage as we noisily fired them.

In fact, many good agencies advertise themselves consistently - it's just that few of them use advertising. What they do is think about their clients' problems and preoccupations; ferret away until they find imaginative solutions and then publish them with style and clarity. I've quoted the immortal Dave Flower before: "Advertising is worth doing when you've done something worth advertising."

Q: I've just appointed a new agency; its top guy was all over the pitch like a rash, professing undying love for my brand and guaranteeing he'd be personally involved on the account. Unfortunately, the same agency has also just won a much bigger bit of business than my own, and he now seems to have rather more affection for the other account's untold millions than my own. How can I get his attention?

A: You mustn't take this personally. Your agency chief is no less fond of you now than he was when he first greased into reception to meet you. He wasn't fond of you then.

You may be luckier than you think. An agency chief such as the one you describe will be treated by his excellent account teams with exasperated tolerance. Whenever they can, they point him outwards rather than inwards.

Account directors conspire to confine his contact with their clients to industry dinners and a Christmas card. There is a clear correlation between those accounts on which the agency's best work is done and those accounts scorned by their buck-crazed boss.

So judge your agency not by how often you feature on the top guy's timesheets but by what it does for your brand. You may soon begin to feel a smug sort of sympathy for those larger, richer clients whose work is being smothered by an excess of top-level attention.

- 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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