On the Campaign Couch...with JB

On the Campaign Couch...with JB

Q: I work on a multi-national account for a hugely bureaucratic client.

The co-ordination task is huge and requires several conference calls a week with client and agency people phoning in from the likes of China, India, South Africa and Argentina. English, thankfully, has been designated as the common language. However, many of the people I deal with have impenetrable accents. I simply have no idea what they are saying half the time. Most of the others don't seem to care but, as the main client liaison, it's my job to. I have no wish to be seen as either a snob or racist, but I am at my wits' end.

A: Try this. With an open copy to your top client, e-mail all your regular conference call contributors along these lines:

"TOP PRIORITY. In marketing, as we all know, it is often the small things, the details, the subtle insights that first inspire outstanding strategy and then transform it into masterful execution. In our regular conferences calls (not always, unfortunately, on the clearest of lines), I have come increasingly to recognise that I'm sometimes failing to do justice to many of your most insightful and valuable contributions. Since our competitive advantage is almost wholly dependent on leveraging the combined intelligence and experience of this talented group of global professionals to which you belong, it's clear to me that any failure to optimise your input must inevitably and adversely affect our market performance - and therefore our chances of meeting our corporate and personal KPIs. To ensure that, from now on, this company benefits optimally from the value of your membership, I'm therefore instituting one simple new procedure. At the end of every conference call, all participants will be invited to e-mail me with a short summary of the notes they will have taken, with emphasis on the one key point they wish to register. As a result, you will know with certainty that your contribution not only receives the attention that it merits but also that going forward our company will be able to demonstrate even more dynamic growth."

Please don't shrink from the prose style or the hyperbole. Both are necessary.

Your client will admire this initiative and give it unconditional approval. Participants will be flattered enough to comply. And you can sleep again.

Q: Should we celebrate that complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority fell by 13 per cent last year, assuming that it indicates greater responsibility from advertisers and agencies? Or should we worry that it's merely a function of engagement levels dropping?

A: It is high time that the ASA clarified all of this. It's a perfectly simple matter, as I shall now reveal.

A newcomer to this subject might be excused for thinking that the fewer complaints received by the ASA, the more they should congratulate themselves. Wrong. If advertising complaint levels fell to zero, the advertising business would be in serious trouble. The advertising business needs a certain level of complaints, and a certain proportion of complaints upheld, in order to demonstrate that it's maintaining standards. Furthermore, if there were no complaints, and therefore no complaints upheld, the advertising business would be extremely reluctant to fund the ASA. So we must first pay tribute to those advertisers and agencies who publish ads to which the British public objects. Without them, our much admired self-regulatory system - only recently referred to so respectfully by the Prime Minister - would be seen to be redundant.

Like more statutory arrangements, the ASA's powers serve to act as a punishment for those who have strayed and a deterrent to those who might have been tempted to stray. So when the level of complaints upheld shows a sudden year-on-year drop, one of two reasons is immediately clear: either the imposing presence of the ASA has effectively dissuaded thousands of competitive companies from being tempted to transgress; or, alternatively, the ASA has recklessly allowed its standards to slip.

A sharp increase in the number of complaints upheld is similarly unambiguous. It's either welcome evidence of the ASA's new rigour; or less welcome evidence of a deplorable decline in industry standards.

The joy of all this is that every fact about the rise and fall of advertising complaints can be legitimately interpreted in at least two totally contradictory ways. And that's what makes the Today programme encounters between John Humphrys and the ASA spokesperson so perennially enjoyable.

I hope this has helped. I now wait for the ASA to explain how an ad that it knows to be clearly misleading can ever mislead.

"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.