Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: What do you think about agencies running ads for themselves? Surely the best self-promotion for any agency is just to do what it does as well as it can possibly do it?

A: Doing what you do as well as you can possibly do it is not enough. This is what Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882) is widely believed to have said: "If a man write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse-trap than his neighbour, tho' he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door."

As it happens, there's not a shred of evidence that Emerson ever uttered these words - which is just as well for his reputation since they are demonstrably daft. If you don't believe me, retire to the woods, build a better mouse-trap and wait.

Doing what you do as well as you can possibly do it is only of value if people know it. You cannot leave this to chance.

Ads are seldom the best form of advertising for advertising agencies.

David Ogilvy advertised his agency by writing best-sellers about it. It takes an unusual talent to persuade potential clients to pay several million dollars for the privilege of reading an ad agency's credentials presentation.

New agencies advertise themselves because they need to tell the world that advertising will never be the same again. They may even believe it.

When, a month or two later, it becomes evident that the new agencies are indistinguishable from the old agencies, they stop advertising on the very reasonable grounds that they have nothing left to say. The only agency ever to have had a genuine USP was Ted Bates, which invented the USP. Quirkily, the invention outlasted the inventor.

Q: I am the commercial director of a client company owning four brands. We currently use two agencies, each handling two brands. Both agencies are offering us cost savings if we centralise our business with them. The savings on offer are negligible, but do you think there could be other advantages?

A: Let me turn the question round and put it back to you. What are the disadvantages of working with two agencies? You dismiss the cost implications as negligible, so what else do you experience?

A day-by-day, side-by-side comparison of service, imagination, commitment, contribution and agreeability. Built-in protection against complacency.

Two lots of people to have lunch with rather than one. If the costs of all these are negligible, they seem to come cheap.

Furthermore, monogamous clients are far more likely to suffer from a seven-year itch. Having two devoted courtesans may save you from expensive and disruptive divorce proceedings (or "agency reviews", as they are more commonly known).

Should you accept this advice and decide to keep your business split between the two agencies, you might also think it prudent to keep that decision from them.

Q: Dear Jeremy, Last year we poached an account executive who we thought was worth their weight in gold. Six months on, we realise we've been sold a pup, and their former agency is rubbing its hands gleefully. What's the best way to profit from this situation?

A: The only way you can profit from this situation is by making sure it never happens again. So start by coming clean with yourself. You haven't been sold a pup. You went out and bought one: with eyes wide open and extremely expensively.

So what led you to do it? Were you sweet-talked by a headhunter? Did you read a flattering profile in the trade press? Was it a client recommendation (with a hint of juicy business to follow)? Whatever your excuse, the inexcusable truth is that you failed to do your homework.

Ours is a tiny village. A real no-hoper - particularly a highly priced no-hoper - will be widely known as such. I bet you made one of two extremely common mistakes. The first is to hire counter-intuitively: "What I really like about him is the fact that he's so totally different from everyone else we have at that level." Six months later you're disappointed that he doesn't seem to have settled in very well.

And the second is to fall for the candidate's flattery. He works for a rival agency; makes no secret of his unhappiness there; is critical of both their principals and their principles; admits to a long-standing admiration for you and your agency. Within seconds, your roles are reversed: you're recklessly selling your company as if to a potential client. But your delight at effecting the sale will be extremely short-lived. Wasn't it?

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683. Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haynet.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.

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