On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Dear Jeremy, Advertisers keep banging on about their desire for full cost transparency. If this were really true, they would not willingly throw (and I mean throw) their media investment into an agency dealing pot, would they?

A: As alert readers may have noticed, when I'm not at all sure what a question means, I use the opportunity to rant on about something else altogether and hope that no-one notices. This particular question prompts me to reflect on the puzzling phenomenon of what used to be called the full-service agency.

Let's forget planning, packaging, economic modelling and regression analysis and simply define the full-service agency as an agency that not only provided the words and the pictures but also the space and the time that the words and the pictures would occupy. Any agency that boasted both a creative and a media buying department could claim to be a full-service agency without infringing the Trade Descriptions Act (1968). And so they lived (and quite often prospered) for well over 100 years.

Some were a great deal bigger than others and were thought at the time to be huge. But by any normal standards, they weren't. I don't believe that any full-service agency - outside Japan or France - ever enjoyed more than a 5 per cent share of its market.

Because there was, of course, a built-in growth-governor. And it lived not in the media buying department - where, then as now, big is beautiful - but in the creative department. The growth-governor was made up of two parts. There was the issue of confidentiality and exclusivity - which mostly limited agencies to one client in each sector; and there was the widespread perception that great size and high inventiveness could somehow never co-habit.

And that's why, in hindsight, the longevity of the full-service agency can be seen to be so extraordinary. For one half of its offering, the bigger it got the more it was admired and the easier it became to get bigger still; and for the other half of its offering, the bigger it got the more it was doubted and the harder it became to get bigger still.

For well over 100 years, undetected, the full-service agency was a Pushmipullyu.

The de-coupling of media from creative, of course, released the media buying boys from the shackles of the growth-governor and set them free to soar. Media agencies now enjoy far higher shares of their respective markets than their predecessors ever did: and with the enthusiastic approval of their clients.

As for the creative bit: the client requirement for exclusivity is slightly less acute but still lurks. And the mysterious myth that big agencies can't be as creative as small agencies has if anything gained currency and will be dispelled only by performance. (I may very well return to this point - particularly if nobody asks me to.)

Q: I am a junior creative working in a direct marketing agency. I am desperate to get some experience working on some above-the-line briefs to progress my career, but my creative director is an ardent traditionalist who believes in the old ways of mail packs and little else. I have only been at the agency for six months so it's too early to leave. What should I do?

A: Drop to your knees and give thanks to whomever you decide deserves it. Quite by chance, at the right age, you are in the right place at the right time. These days, above-the-line agencies have more to learn from the better direct agencies than the other way round - and some are even prepared to admit it. As direct agencies continue to win bigger fees and heightened respect, the less talented discards from above-the-line agencies will turn to them confidently for work. Most will be disappointed. Soon, the shrewder headhunters will be escorting more creative traffic from below to above than the other way round. Those who've shown that they can make money for clients by having practical ideas will be the new masters of the universe.

Q: My daughter, a recent history of art graduate, is looking at applying for a job in a media agency. I've asked around and have been warned that they are extremely sexist environments to work in. Is this true?

A: No. Media agencies are brainier than they used to be and some are even well-mannered. A certain air of brutality is retained for purely commercial purposes. Clients do not believe their budgets are likely to be ruthlessly negotiated by men in silk dressing gowns sipping Earl Grey tea. So, I'm afraid your daughter may not find her history of art degree an immediate advantage in her career.

- "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.