Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Dear Jeremy, We are a medium-sized agency, and one of our larger accounts would be a dream to work on, were it not for its marketing manager - a woman so confrontational, unhelpful, pedantic and obstructive to the creative process that we are unable to keep our account team motivated.

She lies to us and her bosses, asks us to do everything ten different ways to compensate for her lack of creative judgment and is plain rude to everyone. Naturally we have discussed this several times with her boss, and his boss, who agree she is "difficult" but both seem too timid to deal with her as nothing changes. We can't afford to resign the business and anyway we don't want to be beaten by this idiot. Please advise.

A: Now you know why the client/agency relationship can never be a partnership.

Were your account director to have equivalent characteristics, your client would have had her off his business before breakfast. But don't get all plaintive; it'll get you nowhere. Instead, sit down calmly and work out what's in the minds of her two uber bosses.

Chances are, they hired her. They recommended her to the main board.

A marketing manager who gives the agency a hard time is OK by them; and is much to be preferred to the last one, who went native and got hot flushes when the creative director with the hairy chest prefaced his presentation of a ten-second ID spot by screening a 20-minute clip from an Estonian documentary made in 1934. Her bosses find her just as much of a pain as you do; they'd rejoice if she went. But she's your problem, not theirs.

Every time you try to make it their problem, you incur further disfavour.

So make her famous. Put her on platforms. Get her profiled - suggested headline: "Is this marketing's most demanding woman?"

At any given time, there are 17 marketing directors convinced that their marketing managers are too soft on their agencies. At least five will make her an offer she can't refuse. You can work out for yourself what to say at her leaving party.

Q: All our media competitors seem to be striking up deals to launch communications planning agencies with creative outfits. I'm afraid I may have missed the boat. Are these all they are cracked up to be?

A: No. But that's because no agency is as good as it's cracked up to be, particularly when the cracking up is done by the agency. (It's an odd phrase; you'd have thought that sensitive communications agencies would shrink from any association with cracking up, wouldn't you?)

As you know, the whole point of media agencies getting involved with communications planning and messy creative stuff is to be able to offer clients something that's not as easy to price as straightforward media buying.

I say this approvingly. Clients get astonishing value from well-planned and inspired communications but they very rarely know how much. So you can't blame them for trying to get it for less; particularly when agencies, in between moaning about their margins, consistently offer to undercut their rivals. It follows that, if good agencies are to earn as much as they deserve to, an element of mystery, magic and imprecision must be preserved. Unfortunately, mystery, magic and imprecision also allow incompetent agencies to earn more than they deserve; but not, luckily, for very long.

Q: I manage a direct marketing shop. With the amount of above-the-line agencies developing their own DM offshoots or tying up with existing DM agencies, do you think it's about time we found an above-the-line partner too or do you think there is room for survival without an above-the-line partner?

A: It's a funny thing about brands in our line of business; they don't seem to stretch very well. I can think of only one agency brand that enjoys an enviable reputation across more than one discipline; and that's probably because its eponymous founder was passionately and publicly committed to both.

Whatever you do, don't re-invent the department; or, even worse, allow yourself to become one. Specialist departments were just about OK when full-service agencies competed by piling subsidised service on subsidised service, in guilty recognition of their commission-based bounty; but they'll never work again.

So retain your identity and invest heavily in your core skill and reputation.

Get that right, and lots of different girls will want you to be their best friend. Monogamy and contractual fidelity may offer a welcome sense of security; but wouldn't you rather be able to play the field?

- "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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