Through dint of sheer hard work, I have made myself really good at a difficult but critical area of my agency’s operations. But now I’ve become the go-to person for this important but rather dull work, and it’s limiting my ability to develop my career. I’ve become indispensable to the business, but my reward seems to be dull work. How can I get out of this fix apart from turning in poor work?
It’s one of the great unrecognised risks of our business. You earn a name for being able to do something well; which is reasonable enough. As a consequence, you’re offered exactly the same sort of work, over and over again; which is sort of OK if a bit wearisome. Then, before you know what has happened, everybody assumes that, because you go on being good at doing exactly the same sort of stuff, you must be rubbish at everything else.
It’s not an exact parallel, but it gives me an excuse to tell a true and touching story about that greatly gifted gentleman David Abbott.
More than 40 years ago, The Advertising Creative Circle was holding one of its extremely popular Role Reversal Seminars. For those unfamiliar with the idea, they worked like this. Clients paid good money to spend five days and nights in a Cambridge college pretending to be advertising agencies. Formed into syndicates, they would compete against each other to crack a creative brief set by a group of agency people pretending to be clients. Each syndicate would face the client three times: first for the initial briefing; then for a first-stage exploration meeting; and finally for the big one. Within half-a-day, both sides were comfortable in their new skins and taking their responsibilities deadly seriously.
The "client" was a family biscuit company with a big budget. Sam Rothenstein, a creative director at SH Benson, was the founder’s daughter and now chairman; she had recently poached Jeremy Bullmore (JWT) from Procter & Gamble as the new broom marketing director, whose brand manager assistant was David Abbott (Doyle Dane Bernbach).
For three days, the client agencies came to the three of us and presented. They were perfunctorily polite to the chairman, they barely acknowledged the assistant brand manager and they addressed themselves almost exclusively to the new broom marketing director. If I made the smallest suggestion, they would treat it with exaggerated deference. If David did the same, they would dismiss it with ill-concealed disdain. This pattern was repeated, day after day.
On the fourth morning, before the first presentation, Sam, David and I met as arranged. To my surprise, David had put on a three-piece suit.
"I’ve had enough," he said. "Three days ago, I was the managing director of Doyle Dane Bernbach. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been a junior assistant brand manager, ignored and despised and treated as a person of absolutely no significance. It’s done terrible things to my self-esteem and it’s got to stop."
So when the next "agency" came in to present, Sam opened the meeting with some company news. "You should know," she said, "that our company has made some significant management changes. I shall be remaining as non-executive chairman but Mr Bullmore has accepted the position of regional director of human resources for south-east Asia, while Mr Abbott will be taking over the role of marketing director, UK, with immediate effect."
And, for the last two days of presentations, absolutely nobody looked at me; everybody directed every word of their passionate advocacy to David and greeted his slightest suggestion with exaggerated deference.
The effect on his morale was immediate. And so was the effect on mine. I could feel myself shrinking physically. When I summoned up the courage to ask a question, I could feel my mouth dry up.
David, ever the gentleman, was very decent about it. He even bought me a beer at lunchtime.
But it taught me two lifelong lessons. Always include the most junior clients when presenting to them. And it’s even harder to be good at things if it’s clear that no-one expects you to be.
(It affected clients too. One went running to his room, sobbing: "I now know I haven’t an ounce of creativity in my body!")
‘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 firstname.lastname@example.org or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE