Q: Recent IPA figures show that in the last three years, the number of creative people in agencies (and I include planners here as well as writers and art directors) has declined while the number of account managers has increased. Given that the primary function of agencies is to have ideas, I am at a loss to explain this. Can you?

A: Oh, such naivety! You must be a creative person.

You may remember the story of the artist (was it Whistler?) who was sued by a disgruntled client on the grounds that the commissioned picture for which he'd recently paid a considerable sum was little more than a sketch.

In court, the client's counsel landed what he fully expected to be the killer punch. "Tell me, Mr Whistler," he intoned. "Precisely how long did it take you to execute this picture?" "A lifetime," Whistler replied.

If agencies were paid only for the time it took them to have ideas, they would have to choose between charging several hundred thousand pounds a second or going out of business.

Conduct a comprehensive audit of your agency's timesheets and all will be revealed. The actual act of having an idea doesn't feature at all. What features is meetings. Meetings to meet the new brand manager; to discuss the new brief; to discuss the new brief internally; to return to the client with a revised brief; to agree a final brief; to brief the creative people on the final brief; to return to the client with the creative people's version of the final brief; to brief the research people; to talk the regional client through the revised final brief; to brief the account group on the regional client's input to the revised final brief; and to discuss internally the creative department's first response to the brief-before-last. (There, you see: you didn't notice, did you? But between the penultimate and ultimate meetings as listed above, an idea happened. And please remember: an idea doesn't have to be a good idea to qualify as an idea.)

Then there are telephone calls and e-mails: to postpone the meeting arranged to discuss the creative department's first response to the final revised brief; to postpone the focus groups; to alert the media company to the implications. And then we return to the sequence of meetings as outlined in severely compressed form above.

Research indicates that for every five man-minutes devoted to the actual birth of a usable idea, just over seven months are devoted to the run-up and the follow-through: a ratio of approximately 1:14,560. For multinational clients, where the idea has to demonstrate applicability in seven or more territories, the ratio is 1:72,800.

So the primary function of agencies is not, as you suggest, to have ideas. It may be their primary value; but their primary function is to get those frail ships sailing.

The only surprise in the IPA figures is the dogged survival of the creative johnnies.

Q: Imagine my surprise when one of my friends told me that she'd been invited to join the Barb panel. A bit like TV licence detector vans, I was sceptical as to their existence. Now however my friend is threatening not to register her viewing when one of my ads is on air. What should I do?

A: Acquire a sense of humour.

Q: My agency's parent has become embroiled in a wrangle over its financial reporting. The agency, and particularly its sister media company, has assured me that their credit-worthiness is beyond question and that media owners are happily booking in my ads. However I've got a major new campaign launching soon and I can't afford any slip-ups. Do you have any suggestions?

A: Yes. Cover yourself and your backside with indemnities, pledges, insurance policies and consultancy opinions. On the umbrella principle, this will ensure an uninterrupted period of dry weather and the undying gratitude of your agency.

- Jeremy Bullmore is a former chairman of J. Walter Thompson and a director of WPP. He also writes a monthly column for Management Today. Address your problems to him at campaign@ or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.


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