Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Jeremy, how do you explain the statistic - recently featured in Campaign - that 15 out of the top 18 ad agencies have changed CEO in the past two years? And what can we do about it?

A: I expect someone at Campaign could tell us exactly how many of the top 18 media agencies have changed CEOs in the past two years. I bet it's a lot less than 15; and maybe that's the beginning of the explanation you're looking for. The last 15 or 20 years have been turbulent times for the traditional ad agency - not least because the traditional ad agency ceased to exist during that time, though not all of them noticed.

Looking back, we can see that the full-service agency was once a stately vessel. Yes, of course, there were good years and bad years; triumphant wins and devastating losses; breakaways and mergers and start-ups with improbable founders' names linked together like Dickensian solicitors. (Stephen King's inspired creation was Beagle, Bargle, D'Annunzio, Twigg & Privet.)

There was always something for Campaign to write about. But compared to the storms that were brewing up beyond the horizon, sailing conditions were benign and predictable. Much the same ships sailed sedately on, offering much the same services to much the same clients. And it was, of course, during this time, that today's CEOs joined the business as graduate trainees and conscientiously trained themselves for a future that never materialised.

The moment that media went, so did scale. And the moment scale goes, authority is threatened. Size, for obvious reasons, has always favoured media companies but does little if anything for creative companies. Fragmentation, specialisation and disintermediation - unknown words in 1990 - all whittled away at the full-service agency, which no longer had a reserved seat at the client's top table. Lulled into a false sense of security by the bursting of the first internet bubble, agencies were quite unprepared for the second internet bubble, which turned out not to be one. Their life raft was The Great Reel, to which they clung tenaciously; at exactly the time that the world's most persuasive and powerful medium was increasingly portrayed as conservative, didactic, poor value for money and deeply uncool.

Are you still surprised that 15 out of the top 18 ad agencies have changed CEO in the past two years?

Q: Dear Jeremy, I am great mates with another creative team in my agency - we go down the pub together and discuss ideas and I have even been invited to one of their weddings. But last week, after we'd had a few drinks, they told me they have ripped off the idea for a new campaign they're working on from an old ad that ran about 12 years ago. I know I ought to forget they ever said anything but I'm worried if the campaign runs, they'll get found out and the consequences will be much worse. Should I "anonymously" tell my creative director? Or just keep quiet and hope they never get found out?

A: What a creep you sound. "Dear Tarquin, I thought you ought to know that the campaign idea that Butch and Sissy are working on for Burgrips is a deliberate rip-off of that 1994 ad for Anglo-Galvanized what got all those gongs. I'm telling you this for their own good, obviously. Yours anonymously."

Virgin births are as rare in ideas as they are in life. At some level of knowingness, all ideas owe something to other ideas. Any idea that's an obvious, unapologetic rip- off of another idea, no matter how old, is a bad idea. But more often than not, by the time it's been worked through, the idea that first sparked off the idea has become unrecognisable; at which point, the new idea has become perfectly respectable. Leave it to Tarquin.

Q: An agency chairman writes: "I've been in the industry for 20 years and run a successful agency, which I still enjoy doing. But if I got a pound for every time I was asked why I hadn't chucked it all in for a life of relaxation and retirement, I could buy a digital start-up. What is a respectable length of career before bowing out?"

A: The ideal time to retire is two years before you know it is. The only people who will point this out to you are those who are impatient to replace you. Rightly suspecting their motives, and nobly putting the interests of the agency before your own, you soldier on. Two years later, it's two years too late. But the real problem of course is apparent from your question. You're still enjoying yourself. So what you should do is find something else you'd enjoy doing - it's unlikely to be nothing - and start doing that instead.

- "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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