Should agencies appear on television?

If there is one thing that's pretty much guaranteed about any TV show that features ad agencies, it's that they will be made to look like feckless, vainglorious fools.

British TV production companies seem to delight in showing agencies in the worst possible light. Comedies such as The Persuasionists and The Mad Bad Ad Show have long thought of advertising as a richly absurd vein. But documentaries, too, enjoy showing the industry as ridiculous – few can forget how St Luke’s was taken apart in a BBC series, while Karmarama’s brief appearance in Iceland Foods: Life In The Freezer Cabinet was far from its finest moment.

But, nonetheless, when a TV company comes knocking, there’s?always an agency willing to volunteer – most recently Partners Andrews Aldridge in The Fixer, in which it surprisingly emerged with some credit. In The Apprentice, too, they are usually let off relatively lightly – although there is suspicion that it is because the stooges in this instance are the contestants themselves.

So is it wise to let the cameras shine a light on your agency, or do their lights diminish some of the magic?

Creative head

Steve Aldridge, executive creative director and chairman,
Partners Andrews Aldridge

"The thing to understand when you agree to appear on a TV show is that you’re giving up creative control. But you can control which show you say yes to. That choice is critical. For us, The Fixer made sense. You’re part of Alex Polizzi’s solution, you’re her professional specialist that she’s bringing her client to see. So you need to deliver. It then boils down to preparation. We prepared for this like no other pitch. Ninety per cent of our work ended up on the cutting-room floor. But, by doing that, we could ensure the remaining 10 per cent that did make the cut was good enough to be a phenomenal ad for the agency."

Agency head

Neil Henderson, chief executive, St Luke’s

"Trendy ad folk talking about ‘concepts’ for mass brands generally looks bad on TV. Back when St Luke’s was a co-operative with ‘co-owners’, a TV company convinced us to share our story. St Luke’s has always been a progressive company with an invigorating culture. On TV, they made us look laughable. Programmes are there to tell a story and the agency is a character in the narrative. The trick is to foresee your character – hero or fall guy? Later, we did Trading Places. The programme told the story of a Glaswegian swapping his agency for St Luke’s. He loved our culture, creativity and freedom; we looked like heroes. We learnt the hard way!"

Agency head

Joseph Petyan, executive partner, JWT London

"With any agency engagement with media, the primary motivation will lie in either personal, client or industry impetus. A ‘bad’ appearance can impact on all three. Agencies normally shy away from ‘reality’ television appearances. The dangers are legion – not least because some producers (not all) have a preconceived idea of what life in an ad agency looks like. Agencies can come out of these types of programmes reflecting the vibrant industry that advertising is. But, more often, we’re portrayed as Champagne-drinking, tight-trousered, thick-rimmed-glasses types you wouldn’t want a beer with – and that’s not good for any of us."

Agency head

James Murphy, chief executive, Adam & Eve/DDB

"What we do and how we do it can easily look ridiculous through the detached gaze of the camera. We’ve all seen the disastrous consequences of agencies seeking profile through a documentary or news piece. Having said that, when we won John Lewis, they told us they’d agreed to let the BBC make a documentary and that, as a ‘valued partner’, we would be filmed developing and debating ideas and on shoots and editing. We tried to wriggle out and were told firmly to take part. In the end, the results were actually a very fair view of the process. What’s more, it gave positive profile to the agency at a time when we were just starting out."