On the Campaign Couch ... with JB
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: A marketing director writes: I keep reading research saying that clients don't understand agencies and that procurement is making their lives hell.

Well, I haven't found an agency yet that fully understands our business. Was this impasse always the way or is there now a genuine lack of understanding between the two sides?

A: Be careful what you wish for.

It's entirely possible for an agency to have so deep an understanding of a client's business that it becomes neutered. The agency not only recognises the necessary constraints under which the client operates - legal, financial, international, industrial - but it is also deeply sensitive to the way it likes to do things. The result: an agency so bloody responsible that it never challenges anything; never says "have we ever thought of?"; never takes things apart to see if there's a better way of putting them together again.

For a while, for the marketing director, this is just lovely. No frustrating arguments with intransigent creatives; no three-hour meetings painstakingly explaining the importance of distribution and what they expect back in Grand Rapids, Michigan; no embarrassing encounters, of mutual incomprehension, between the agency and the client's chief executive. "The agency's great," the marketing director says. "It's just like an extension of my own department."

And that, of course, is precisely what's wrong. A year later, the marketing director calls for a creative review, citing the need for fresh thinking. And the agency account director, whose understanding of his client has been supernatural, is left hurt and bewildered.

It all works best, I think, when there's at least one person of seniority on either side who's genuinely bilingual; a client who knows both the value of inventiveness and the impossibility of quantifying it. And a member of the agency who understands both the real competitive pressures under which his client works and how to shield his own team from most of them.

There was a time, to almost universal derision, when account executives at J Walter Thompson around the world were called representatives; not because they were sales reps but because they were expected to represent the client to the agency and the agency to the client. They had to be bilingual. The title's gone - but the function remains critical.

Q: Is it OK for a managing director to refer to his account executives as "slaves"?

A: See above. If he refers to them as slaves but hires only the most able, gives them constant back-up and training and stands by them publicly when they need it - I suppose he might just get away with it. But, on the face of it, it seems a curious way to refer to people who are asked to do the agency's most difficult job.

Q: When do you think the backlash will come against the always-on, constantly Tweeted at, continually Facebook-poked environment in which we are forced to live? Or is there no way back?

A: There's no way back. But there won't be a backlash so much as a fairly brutal winnowing. The Darwinian process of trial and survival that's taken the animal kingdom a few million years to develop (so far) takes place online in a matter of months. The cost of innovation is tiny. The biggest companies in the world required no initial capital or plant. Just about anybody can have a go; a great many have and many more will. A few will stick but most won't. It's already difficult to remember the names of the hottest tickets of two years ago.

The excitement of novelty will soon lose ground to the test of utility. The survivors will function efficiently and will learn to borrow heavily from good old-fashioned repeat-purchase goods: they'll develop and nourish brand personalities that will help protect them from rapacious predators. A clever few will become as emotionally impregnable as Coca-Cola. Dozens will die. And some sort of sanity will prevail.

Q: I have just gotten back to work after being away for a year on maternity leave and the whole industry seems to have changed in my absence. Can you give me a quick synopsis of what I need to know in order to get up to speed?

A: You're extremely fortunate. Most of what you might have learnt during the year you were away is already redundant. Others will have to go through the tiresome process of unlearning it. You won't. Relax: the fundamentals are still in place.

"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.