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Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: I've been asked to take on a couple of non-executive directorships when I retire from my agency in a year's time. They seem like nice little earners. But will I be able to contribute very much? I can't imagine many company boards are over-preoccupied with advertising and marketing matters.

A: This is the first time such a question has ever been asked and it says much for both your probity and your innocence. Until now, the most Frequently Asked Questions put by potential non-executive directors have been these: What is the fee? How does it compare with other quoted companies? Is it revised annually? What about expenses? How many board meetings are there? If board meetings are held abroad, do directors fly first class? Do wives come too? Can we get discounts? And finally: what does this company do exactly - is there a brochure or something?

There is no record of anyone having enquired about the contribution that they themselves might make.

This is not as shameful as it sounds. Few chief executives welcome non-executive directors who make contributions. Contributions lead to extra work for the company secretariat and another unnecessary item on the next board agenda. The greatest contribution that non-executive directors make is essentially a passive one. Simply by being there, they reassure all those self-appointed custodians of good corporate governance - who now form an influential industry in themselves and should probably be more stringently regulated. Perhaps they need some non-executive directors.

Non-executive directorships are not without risk. Billion dollar energy companies acquired from the Russian government for three roubles may not be the tastiest of dishes on offer. Do look carefully through your legal obligations and responsibilities and prepare to be examined on Sarbanes-Oxley.

Oddly enough, you could be useful. Advertising and marketing people are used to asking very simple questions, such as: "Why do we deserve a bigger market share?" If that's the only thing you say in the course of a five-hour board meeting, extremely senior people will soon look up to you.

Q: I suspect one of our most prized clients is seeing another agency. A reporter informed me of this some months ago. I dismissed it at the time as mindless gossip as we have a very strong relationship with them. Since then, other reporters have put the question to me and the evidence is mounting. Should I confront the client or embark on a charm offensive?

A: Before I answer this question, please read the next one:

I work for an advertiser and I'm regularly invited out with my colleagues by my ad agency to "fun" social evenings. The trouble is we rarely have much "fun" as the agency has a penchant for musicals. We humoured our supplier the first time, but every time we now agree to a date they surprise us with tickets for another musical extravaganza. What's the best way of communicating our distaste for musicals without causing offence?

Here are two puzzled people, one an agency person and one a client. Never has the true nature of the client/agency relationship been more elegantly revealed. For reasons to which I shall return, clients find it impossible to tell their agencies the truth; and agencies find it impossible to believe their clients' lies.

To take the first question first: you should certainly assume the rumours are true. Your client is having an illicit affair with a rival and will soon ask for a divorce. Why are you surprised? Surely you know by now that the phrase "a very strong relationship" means your days of marital bliss are numbered? Confront your client and he'll deny it; assault him with charm and you'll drive him into monastic seclusion. Instead, tell him you've been approached to act for his greatest competitor: that'll soon flush him out.

Now for the second. The best way to make it clear to your agency that you don't like musicals is to tell them that you don't like musicals.

The reason for all this deceit and confusion is simple. Ad agency people like to present themselves as hard-skinned cynics. In fact, they want to be adored as much as any Labrador. They love their clients - truly, madly, deeply. And their clients, most of them thoroughly decent people, dog-lovers all, look into those soulful, trusting eyes - and cannot bring themselves to tell the truth; not even to say they can't stand musicals.

If agencies were as hard-bitten as they'd love to be and clients were as unpleasant as they're supposed to be, our world would be so much simpler. And much less agreeable, of course.

- "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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