Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: As a cost-conscious chief executive of a mid-sized agency, I'm thinking of cancelling our subscriptions to intermediaries. They all seem to talk a good game but clearly have their favourites. However, we seem not to be one of them. Should we work harder to curry their favour or give up and save our money?

A: Once upon a time, advertisers made their own selection of agencies to visit; spent a few amiable hours chatting to their managements; were taken through a case history or two; graciously accepted a leisurely lunch; and then made their decision. Speculative work was frowned upon by the IPA, as was the solicitation of another agency's clients. The selection process attracted absolutely no publicity, though the news of the appointment itself might warrant a small paragraph in the World's Press News. There was not always even a shortlist.

Advertisers picked candidate agencies in much the same way as the Conservative Party, in happier times, used to pick its leaders. Chaps sounded out other chaps. Views were sought. School chums were consulted. Social compatibility was at least as important as creativity, which didn't then exist, remember. Nor did marketing directors or television. It all worked quite well, really.

Then came The Age of the Reel. And the celebrity marketing director. And much bigger budgets. Word got around that the appointment of an ad agency could not only make or break a brand but also its marketing director.

Suddenly, the stakes were frighteningly high - and so the call went out for what was called professionalism. Whenever senior executives sense the need to proof themselves against possible future censure, professionalism flourishes. For evidence, look no further than the rise and rise of the management consultant.

So the emergence of intermediaries was inevitable. For the advertiser, they not only provided a knowledgeable service; at least as importantly, they stood as a firewall between the marketing director and his choice of agency. "God knows, chairman, we couldn't have gone about it in a more professional way." Nor will the intermediaries go away.

By all means cancel your subscriptions but don't expect a gusher of new business to follow.

Believe it or not, intermediaries favour those agencies they believe most likely to bring delight and profit to their advertiser clients; no other approach serves their self-interest. If you have potent evidence that you have brought delight and profit to your existing clients, then dramatise and merchandise it relentlessly. If you haven't, no amount of currying will get you anywhere.

Q: I've seen the story about COI getting its agencies to set up stalls at Borough Market and was wondering if agencies really like that kind of thing? Do you think it would be a good way of getting my different agencies together to meet people from all over my business?

A: Once upon a time, gruesome though it was for the creatively sensitive, the three-day National Sales Conference served an extremely useful secondary purpose. It got people from all over the client company to meet and mingle with all their agency people. There was nothing contrived about it. Breakfasts and dinners and games of poker late into the night forged friendships and understandings that lasted for years. Art directors and regional sales managers were joined in their love for Everton.

If an agency mounts and mans a spectacular stall, what will that tell you? It will tell you that they can mount and man a spectacular stall: which is not, of course, at all what you want them to do for you. Your lot will ask them a lot of silly questions and their lot will give them a lot of silly answers. No good will come of it. Getting their lot and your lot together, giving them a bit of a budget, and challenging them to raise a great deal of money for the charity of their choice would be a great deal more valuable.

Q: My company is currently pitching its above-the-line account. I've long admired the advertising of our brand's principal rival, and its ad agency has approached us to be included on the shortlist. What do you advise?

A: I suspect that your principal rival does not admire its ad agency as much as you do. There have been tiffs, deadlines missed, invoices challenged, an ultimatum or two. So what your principal rival's agency is doing is lining itself up for a seamless transfer of affection. How do feel now about taking on your rival's reject? Alternatively, the agency seriously believes it could handle the both of you. In which case, it's arrogant and out of touch. A word in the ear of your rival's marketing director should clarify matters.

- "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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