Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Matthew Coombs of Warc writes: Are advertising agencies less trustworthy than accountants? No client wants their agency to work for a competitor, but they seem pretty laid back when it comes to their finances. Auditing duties for 99 FTSE-100 companies are shared by only four firms. Even Tesco and Sainsbury's share the same auditor. Is it because agency staff can't keep their mouths shut?

A: Dear Matthew, many thanks for this question, which has often intrigued me. I happen to know someone who works for one of the big accountancy firms and also someone who works for one of the big advertising agencies, so I asked them for their respective explanations.

The accountant said this. Accountancy firms and ad agencies inhabit different planets. Accountancy firms are vast, disciplined, numerate, hyper-qualified entities: themselves, far bigger businesses than the majority of their clients. Moreover, all public companies are legally obliged to employ external auditors and depend on their auditor's say-so for their annual figures to be approved. For this reason, auditing companies are of more value to their clients than their clients are to them. That's why, if an auditing firm chooses to part company with a client, the client's shares go into freefall. When the big firms offered both auditing and consultancy, there was some slight concern over confidentiality but clients now welcome the fact that their auditors audit almost everyone else as well: it gives them increased authority, which is exactly what they need.

Ad agencies, on the other hand (the accountant continued), are tiny, insecure, undisciplined showers, with absolutely no grasp of basic business principles. They are so lacking in self-confidence that they'll humiliate themselves in the pursuit of new business and eagerly sign contracts that are clearly insane. Furthermore, there are far more ad agencies than demand can profitably sustain and they vary little in levels of competence. Indeed, the individuals who last year earned the approval of a particular client will by now be working somewhere entirely different. (For ultimate evidence of the insubstantiality of agencies, just study their names and family trees.) The reason that clients insist on exclusivity from their agencies has nothing whatever to do with confidentiality; agencies wouldn't recognise a hot commercial secret if it pounced on them. Clients insist on exclusivity for two reasons: they take great pleasure in demonstrating their hold over their agencies (it helps when conducting fee negotiations); and they don't much like the thought of their agencies buying lunch for their competitors.

Without revealing the accountant's response, I then put the same question to my acquaintance in an advertising agency.

The advertising person said this. Agency people and accountants inhabit different planets. Accountants acknowledge the existence only of that which can be measured. It follows that accountants do not acknowledge the existence of imagination, inspiration, creativity, inventiveness, insight, originality or love. Accountants' value to clients is of an entirely negative nature; they stop them from going broke, from breaking the law, from going to prison - and quite often, from doing anything adventurous. When it comes to their choice of accountants, clients have no worries about confidentiality or exclusivity. They know from years of expensive experience that their accountants are incapable of generating an idea, let alone passing one on to a competitor; their discretion is guaranteed by their institutional dullness.

Advertising agencies, on the other hand (the advertising person continued), are a client's only secret weapon. When costs have been cut and efficiencies maximised and all those other quantifiable boxes have been ticked: to what does the intelligent client turn? To imagination, inspiration, creativity, inventiveness, insight, originality - and, yes, even to love. Accountants, at best, appreciate their clients; advertising agencies actually love them.

Clients know that agencies, unlike accountants, can be alchemists; can turn dross into matchless treasure; can make them rich and famous. It may not happen always - but every year, they see it happen to somebody. So they deny their agencies the freedom to work for others, not because they fear the disclosure of high-potency secrets by some loose-mouthed account director. They deny them that freedom because, for a client, the worst nightmare of all would be to see some bitter competitor come storming past, turbo-fuelled by some Great Idea; and a Great Idea, what's more, that came not from some all-dancing, agency upstart but from his own. No wonder they insist on exclusivity.

Thanks again for the question, Matthew. I do hope that's cleared things up.

- "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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