On the Campaign couch
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

I’ve got 20 years’ advertising experience but, as a woman, I increasingly find I have to lie about my age and go to all sorts of extremes to look younger in order to be considered relevant. I understand this is a very ageist industry and it’s all about the next young bright things, but I don’t think men get the same ageist attitudes. Do you think it’s worth trying to rail against this?

No, I don’t. Railing against things, especially when you’re broadly in the right, induces guilt and defensiveness in others. The more you complain that you’re being discriminated against, the keener people will be to find – or fabricate – evidence of your below-average contribution. I imagine you feel inclined to rail against that as well – and I don’t blame you. But that doesn’t mean I recommend it. Railing against things, particularly perceived injustices suffered by you personally, serves only to justify the attitudes of those who like to deny that such injustices exist.

"The trouble with Marjorie, God bless her, is that she simply can’t come to terms with the fact that she’s not that good. So she has to go on and on and on about how unfair life is. It’s a bit sad, really."

I know, I know: it’s untrue and it’s horrible. But please don’t rail against it.

I’m concerned that you’ve gone to all sorts of extremes to look younger. That you’ve gone to extremes must mean others will notice that you’ve gone to extremes – and they’ll start to feel sorry for you. That’s the last emotion you need to attract.

Instead, think less about your appearance and more about your experience. Because the average age of agency people is about 17¾, experience in agencies is rare; and potentially, therefore, particularly valuable. But only if it’s employed positively. It’s all too easy for people with 20 years’ experience to say: "Oh, we tried that in 1998 and it was an utter disaster." People who prevent other people from experiencing disasters are seldom remembered warmly; they’re remembered for having smothered budding brilliance at birth. This is not a good reputation to acquire in an advertising agency: agencies are paid to be cockeyed optimists; infanticide, however justified, is seldom appreciated.

Concentrate on making tentative ideas even better. When pointing out potential elephant traps, always include a nifty way to dodge them: that’s the positive value of experience. If your influence is seen to be invariably constructive, you won’t have to worry about being relevant. Or even being a woman. They’ll just be very happy to have you around.

Dear Jeremy, I’m 18 months into a big job that involves turning around a failing agency’s fortunes. Our holding company parent is starting to make uncomfortable noises about my supposed lack of progress, but I’ve argued that such a radical change in fortunes will take a few more years to show through in our numbers. What’s your view of a decent time before material results should be expected?

At least you’re not whinging on about the time it takes to turn around a supertanker. It has always been a rotten analogy and, by now, it’s not only inaccurate but tired and apologetic as well. There are laws of physics that govern the manoeuvrability of a large vessel. There are none that govern that of an agency. I share your holding company’s opinion that, after 18 months already, "a few more years" sounds pretty feeble.

What you need to appreciate is that actual success is achieved by first acquiring a reputation for success and not, as many believe, the other way round. By whatever means, let it be known that your agency has scored two victories. They should be spaced seven or 14 days apart, so that the press release announcing the second can use the phrase "hot on the heels of" when referring back to the earlier triumph.

One victory is either a false dawn or a flash in the pan. Two victories constitute a trend. If you can conjure up a third, so much the better. Soon after that, you’ll find it easier to hire good people and easier to get on shortlists. And, soon after that, you’ll win two important awards and some real new business.

It may take a little longer for the numbers to show through – but as long as the press cuttings make cheerful reading, your parent company will hold its fire.

I know an ad executive whose catchphrase is ‘it’s all about content’. It’s his answer to most of the difficult questions that he has posed. What does he mean?

Don’t credit him with subtlety. It’s blindingly obvious what he means.

"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