PERSPECTIVE: Grey job swap looks good on paper, but it can't work in reality

If I was a client, I'm sure I would find the environment of an agency much more to my taste than my own modest surroundings in the industrial suburbs of Crawley. I'd like the slightly racy nature of agency people; I'd like the greater per capita weight of brain in advertising than in my own industry. I'd enjoy the feeling of being on the cutting edge of the creative process and I'd relish the chance to escape from the minutiae of call centre staffing for a bit.

On the other hand, if I was an agency chief executive I'd quite like to be a client for a bit: the chance to forget the client-service ethos, the chance to make major decisions about business strategy rather than being told to get lost after asking an art director to change a layout.

I'm exaggerating for effect, of course, because I can't believe what I've just heard. Drew Thomson, the managing director of Grey's Air Miles client, is planning a three-month job swap with Grey's chief executive, Garry Lace. Presumably the decision was made during the second or even third bottle of wine. Nonetheless, Lace is promising that both he and Thomson will have real authority when they swap central London for downtown Crawley, so it deserves serious attention.

On one level it's an admirable and brave thing to do. Agencies are often derided as places where few people really understand business. No wonder, when clients spend most of their time miles away from advertising, buried deep in production, pricing and packaging. Agencies might work on lots of different products and services but all interest leads to the kernel of advertising.

For years, companies and agencies have set up temporary placements in each other's offices. But there's an important distinction between learning how a business works and running the whole thing. Examine the Lace plus Thomson plus three bottles of wine proposal in more depth and it falls down on several levels.

What could be achieved by this that couldn't be achieved by a good client-agency relationship in the first place? Would other Grey clients, hoping and paying for access to the agency's boss, really be satisfied with discussing the intimate details of their business with another client who's been in the position for a mere three months? Last but not least, while the early signs are promising, Grey is hardly sitting prettily enough to let the chief executive master the intricacies of managing a big call centre in Crawley, is it? And with Air Miles laying plans to evolve into a more broad-based travel service, can it really afford to have its managing director pitching for new business on behalf of its advertising agency?

I'm afraid this reeks of PR flannel. And that's before I've raised the question of how Lace's legendary salary might be taken into account.

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