Q: Recently, I went to a research debrief with my client. The

results were so good - giving the ads such a thumbs-up - that I came

away throwing my hat in the air. I was preparing to greenlight

first-class air tickets, rooms at Shutters On The Beach and a production

budget of £1 million-plus, when my tearful client called. He was

distraught at how awful the research results were. Same room. Same

debrief. Different planet. What should I do?

If it's the first time you've encountered this phenomenon, you've been

lucky. What you witnessed was a perfect demonstration of "selective


As you must have noticed from your bi-annual chats with junior

colleagues, people hear what they want to hear and screen out everything

that is not to their liking. I once fired a person with such sensitivity

that he left the room thanking me for my unqualified endorsement.

He'd heard what he wanted to hear and had blocked out the rest.

In the case you outline, the first fact you must face up to is that you

and your client went to the debrief in totally different frames of


You went longing to hear good news; he went longing to hear bad. He

won't have told you so - they often don't - but he'd never liked this

approach in the first place. So he was ready to pounce with delight on

any shred of support for his instinct; and was equally eager to screen

out anything that challenged it. You, just as unconsciously, felt

exactly the same.

Research debriefers are no fools. They can sense within seconds where

each member of their audience is coming from. Furthermore, as

professional students of selective perception, they know exactly how to

weave into their narrative just enough contradictory hints, hopes and

caveats to flatter an entire spectrum of prejudices, however mutually


The professional researcher, concerned as any good businessman should be

with repeat business, wants everyone to feel that they were right all


You say your client was distraught. He was not. He was pretending to be

distraught. Deep inside, he was exultant.

Never again make the mistake of believing that a positive research

debrief will convert a sceptical client into an enthusiast. The only

advertising worth researching is that about which the client is already

unreservedly ecstatic.

Q: My daughter is now of the age where she is inquisitive about my job.

Having told her I make ads, she thinks I make them all. She particularly

likes the one where the bloke falls asleep over his pint (I don't

understand it but she claims to) and she's told all her mates it's down

to me. I don't want to break her heart and come clean, but equally I

don't want to lie - even though I do that for a living.

Oh, tut. What is all this unseemly talk about lying? Wash your mouth out

at once or you will never be offered a fellowship by the IPA.

Wait until your daughter comes back from school with the news that

absolutely everyone else has a mobile phone. This is your opportunity.

Instead of the bedtime story, acquaint her with the all-important

distinction between falsehood, exaggeration and hyperbole.

Reassure her that you were not misled by her claim. You know for a fact

that there are several other children at her school who have yet to own

a mobile phone and so, technically, she was lying. But, as an

intelligent being, you were able to decode her claim as legitimate

hyperbole. You were therefore not misled and so no harm was done. Such

is the nature of human communication.

By now she will almost certainly have fallen asleep but, if not, you

should find it relatively easy to relate this lesson to your own

profession and your occasional use of hyperbole when describing it.

Jeremy Bullmore is a former chairman of J. Walter Thompson, a director

of Guardian Media Group and of WPP, and the president of NABS. He writes

a monthly column for Management Today. A more serious look at problems

in the workplace, it both inspired and complements On the Campaign

Couch. Address your problems to him at Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Road,

London W6 7JP. Or e-mail