On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: According to an IPA Census, an estimated 48 per cent of employees are aged 30 or under, and only 5 per cent are over 50. Where do all those people go?

A: Baffling, isn't it? Burnt out, perhaps? In senior client positions getting their own back on their upstart agency usurpers? Running ITV? Running pubs? Importing llamas? They can't all have expired on the eve of their 50th birthdays or someone would surely have noticed. I think you should ask Campaign to investigate: it could make an absorbing series.

Q: A marketing director writes: Despite holding several "beauty parades" in recent years and changing my advertising agency more than once, I am still finding it hard to discover an agency that truly understands our business and can generate genuinely strong creative work that works. Do you have any tips on how I should run my latest review process?

A: Even in inverted commas, calling agency reviews beauty parades is revealing. Beauty parades are superficial things; they're meant to be. Competing beauties may profess a lifelong ambition to work with deprived children but their looks are the only things that matter. Who cares if they've never read Paradise Lost?

Some clients say that all they're interested in is "the work". A few even say "the reel" - and include or exclude longlist candidates on the strength of a 20-minute screening unattended by anyone from the agency.

If that's the way you've been choosing your agencies in recent years, I'm not surprised that you've been disappointed.

Beware of agencies with a consistent creative style - even if that style is a bewitching one. What you need is an agency that has a consistent way of doing things; of approaching problems: and you won't learn that from a beauty parade. You're making a decision that could have a profound effect on your company's overall performance and you're trying to do it through speed-dating.

This is what to do next time around. With or without the help of an intermediary, draw up a shortish list of agencies that have a well-founded reputation not just for gongs but also for thoughtfulness. Ask each one for a full client list. Before your first visit, nominate three accounts that you'd like to learn more about. One should be famous and two should be relatively obscure. You'll learn far more about an agency from the way they serve their lesser-known clients than you will from the way they serve their famous ones.

Be on the lookout for the glib. "Burgrips were third into the market so we knew they needed to break the mould. So we invented this Ruritanian poltergeist which won a platinum penguin in Reykjavik and they're now pushing hard for second place."

If you've studied their work, you'll already know what their solutions are. What you really want to know is how they got there. Good advertising can sometimes speak for itself. Good planning rarely does.

Always ask: "What would you do differently if you were starting again?" Those who've actually done the work know exactly what they'd do. All the others just look startled.

Always ask: "Other than communications, what is this client's biggest business concern?"

By this time, you'll know which agencies see their clients' advertising as advertisements for the agency and which agencies see their clients' advertising as advertisements for the client. You'll know not just how pretty they are but also how good they are at going about things. And you'll know if you respect them.

Your choice should be a relatively easy one. You may still be disappointed - but you'll have certainly tilted the table in your favour.

Q: I'm the marketing director for a high-street retailer. I'm not happy with my current agency and am considering putting the business up for pitch. One particular agency created some iconic work for us around a decade ago and has made noises about taking on the business again - it would be a bit of a PR coup, but I'm wary about being seen as trying to rekindle past glories. Should a client ever go back?

A: Nothing wrong with going back as long as you go back for a good reason. Second Time Around can be as satisfactory for agency/client relationships as it sometimes is for boys and girls. But to go back for the sake of a bit of PR is not a good reason. You should apply exactly the same exacting standards as you would if you'd never met the agency; see answer above.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4919.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.