Q: Every Christmas I attend the usual round of social functions with friends outside the business. Inevitably conversation turns to how broke everyone is at this time of year because they have been railroaded into buying their kids the latest peeing doll or thumb-numbing electronic game.
Toy advertising is, of course, fingered as the main evil. I've never worked on a toy account, but because I work in advertising I am blamed for all Christmas' souped-up pester power. Do you have any advice on a response?
A: I know exactly how you feel: it's deeply, deeply tedious. Neither humorous deflection nor anecdotal empathy will help you. The only certain antidote is earnestness. You must cultivate extended earnestness and take it to numbing extremes. Try the following, with my compliments.
"You raise a fascinating and extremely important point. Though you may not have realised it yourself, your concern implies an interrogation of no less than five premises - premises so basic that they are often thought to embody principles. The first, of course, is the question of consumer sovereignty. You may query the right of competitive manufacturers to make persuasive appeals directly to their ultimate consumers (and I use the term carefully; in this instance, of course, we need to make a conscious distinction between the purchaser - as in your case, often a parent; and the consumer or end-user - in almost every case, a child). But if we apply logic, and examine the implications of withdrawing this right, we find that, to maintain consistency, we must make similar judgments about in-store demonstrations and, ineluctably, even about window displays. That legislation should oblige toyshop windows to adopt the bleak exteriors from which betting shops have only recently been liberated is not, in itself, unthinkable; but it should, you may agree, prompt further reflection. The price of consumer sovereignty, as always, remains the obligation to be subjected to competitive blandishments. (No - let me finish. I know exactly the point you are about to make ...) The second principle raised by your question is one of the parent/child relationship; and I think it critical to divorce this question from the question of innocence or vulnerability to which I shall return. Parenthood implies responsibility. Indeed, the concept of parental responsibility is enshrined in our laws. So it could be convincingly argued that for parents to seek to renounce the task of instilling self-denial and discrimination in their children is an abdication of a legally recognised and fundamental obligation. Be that as it may, the third principle you unwittingly call into question is perhaps the most complex ..."
In almost every case, this will be enough. Furthermore, news of your specialist subject will quickly permeate the room - so you're unlikely to have to repeat this performance. You may, however, find the rest of your evening a pretty lonely affair.
Q: A chief executive writes: I'm once again dreading the agency Christmas party for the simple reason that every year I am certain to be cornered by a junior account executive or worse still an art director who, emboldened by drink, proceeds to give me their hour-long "where you're going wrong" speech accompanied by wild finger stabbing. What can I do to avoid this menace?
A: See above: become the aggressor. Do not allow yourself to be backed into a corner: corral your assailant. As soon as the first incoherent art director is firmly cornered, position your face as close as you can bear to his and begin to lecture. As chief executive, you will be familiar with the past ten years' itemised figures for gross income, operating margin, revenue-to-payroll ratio, accommodation costs compared to salary-and-related and the future impact of higher National Insurance contributions.
Let him have them all, spare him nothing and brook no interruptions. He'll be begging for mercy (and another drink) in well under three minutes.
Q: The annual Christmas card signing chore brings the agency to its knees for two weeks and usually causes the resignation of at least one PA. The only alternatives seem to be sending a silly electronic game thingy by e-mail with promises of donating the saved cash to Nabs, or getting all our signatures pre-printed, which not only seems deeply vulgar but also misses the point. I have a horrible suspicion that no-one would notice if we didn't bother at all. What do you recommend?
A: The appalling truth, of course, is that some people will notice. Some people actually draw up a list of friends, acquaintances, clients and suppliers - and tick them off one by one as and when their Christmas cards arrive. Then the following year, when compiling their new list for outgoing cards, they strike off the tickless.
For a season ostensibly devoted to generosity, forgiveness and goodwill to all mankind, it is difficult to imagine any pattern of behaviour more discordant. These people are vain, mean-spirited and vindictive - and you should rejoice.
Because your problem solves itself, you see. Decide to send no cards at all, and the people you like will neither notice nor mind. The only people who will notice are the vain and vindictive: and these are the ones you can't stand anyway.
By all means send a lot of money to Nabs, but you don't have to tell the world about it. God will notch it up all right.
Q: Should we send our clients a seasonal gift to send them off on their Christmas break with a warm glow when they think of our agency? If so, what do you recommend?
A: You certainly should. But there's a serious snag.
Your gift should be tailor-made for each client. It should reflect the interests of the client and not the interests of the agency. And it should be evidence of wit and imagination - not of extravagance. If your agency is capable of creating such an artefact, your clients will already be thinking of you with a warm glow. So if it isn't, they won't.
Q: Tess Alps writes: Our company Christmas party is this week and, of course, as one of the bosses it is expected that I turn up. But by about 9pm my feet will be killing me and I'll be wishing I was at home watching Daniel Deronda with a glass of decent Pinot Noir. Equally, all my adorable bright young things will be wishing I'd just bugger off so they could get down to some serious tongue thrusting and substance abuse. What is the appropriate etiquette in this situation for the more mature executive?
A: Dear Tess, thank you for your kind enquiry. This may not be as big a problem as you imagine. Yes, you need to turn up; and yes, you need to leave early. Such an arrangement suits both you and your adorable young decadents. So the only question to resolve is: what reason do you give for your early departure?
The painful truth, of course, is that nobody but you will mind very much.
But self-esteem is important; so rather than limping away complaining about your swollen ankles, I suggest you get in touch with gorillagram.co.uk.
When, on the dot of nine, an enormous man whirls you away on the back of his Harley-Davidson, even your bright young things may concede that you've managed your departure with some style. (Such expenditure may or may not qualify as a legitimate corporate expense. Check with your CFO first.) Anyway: Happy Christmas, Tess.
Q: From an anonymous account man: It's client Christmas party time and, as ever, my client is desperate to meet the creatives on his business (he sees me as an appalling sycophant and general yes-man). The creatives would rather put hot needles in their eyes. The usual policy of limitless booze inevitably results in the creatives telling him what they really think - occasionally punches are thrown. How do I keep client and creatives apart, while still making him very much part of "the process", letting him into the "black box", etc, etc?
A: There can be only one reason why your creatives would rather put hot needles in their eyes than meet your client: you have spent another year fomenting mutual distrust.
Your client is right. Not only are you an appalling sycophant and general yes-man but you are clearly far too frightened of your creative people to tell them that, when their work stinks, it stinks. So they show you this crap and you tell them it's really really wonderful, just fucking fantastic, wow oh wow what a mould-breaking, earth-shattering, off-the-wall, envelope-pushing example of creative courage, great stuff guys. Then you trot off to the client and say: "Frankly, Nigel, I can't pretend to be absolutely certain about this one but I promised the creatives that I'd at least expose it to you ..." And then you trot back to your creatives and say: "Christ, I really went to the line for you on this one but the cretin simply didn't see it. Frankly, if this account wasn't New York's most profitable piece of business, I'd have chucked it in there and then I can tell you ..."
Though you don't remotely deserve to be helped, here's what you have to do. Take a leaf from the book of the Advertising Creative Circle and turn your Christmas get-together into a role-reversal seminar. First pour out the drinks; then persuade your client to present some advertising to your creative team and get them to evaluate it. Then pour out some more drinks. They'll probably still end up throwing punches at each other - but they'll also end up wiser people.
Keep your own opinion to yourself; they all know it's worthless. Just keep pouring the drinks (and stop saying frankly all the time).
Q: I'm an agency new-business director and I am thinking of sneaking off on holiday the week before Christmas. What are the chances of a big pitch being called on Christmas Eve and me not being able to take the credit for getting us on the list?
A: An absolutely fundamental condition for the survival of any agency new-business director is the ability to take exclusive credit for making every shortlist - even when he's away; and to distance himself completely from the subsequent failure to convert - even when he led the pitch. So take your holiday; and you may find out how good you are.
A very Happy Christmas to all my readers
- 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@ haynet.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.