CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - JOB SWAPS. How much benefit is there to be gained from the job swap?

Does a job swap really let an advertiser comprehend the client, Ian Darby asks.

It's commonplace in the advertising business for agency staff to experience a client's reality in the name of good account handling.

Recently, an agency chairman spent a few days selling Tweenies at Toys "R" Us and more than one agency staffer has been found flipping burgers at fast-food chains.

But last week's news that Grey's chief executive, Garry Lace, is looking into the idea of a three-month job swap with Air Miles' managing director, Drew Thomson, would appear to take the idea of getting beneath the skin of a client to new levels.

Swapping jobs with clients is not a new idea but the seniority of Lace and Thomson and the proposed length of the job swap would seem to make it a serious undertaking.

Lace is keen to stress that any potential arrangement with Air Miles or other clients is part of a wider vision of his to get closer to advertisers and their concerns. He splits this into three areas: creating different models of financial partnership with clients, acknowledging changes in client ways of working (particularly procurement), and, finally, getting client and agency teams closer.

A potential job switch between himself and Thomson would be part of this third objective. And it is something Lace has already attempted with Air Miles. While at TBWA\London, Lace asked the account director Helen Kimber to spend three months with the client. He now wants to see Grey staff taking the option of spending one, three or six months working at a client's business.

"It allows people to come back with the understanding that advertising is just a small part of a client's issues," Lace says. "And it gives them the knowledge to talk with clients about their business."

It seems likely that other members of the Grey team will be placed with Air Miles before Lace himself gets to the point where he can consider it. So what will be the benefits?

"The conversation I want account directors to have is not how to pressurise a client to buy the sixth ad in a campaign so that they can win a D&AD award but how they can move 600,000 customers from Sainsbury's to Tesco. Helen was able to do that after spending time at Air Miles," Lace argues.

Lace has already made some progress in the area of trying to understand changes in client processes (he recently hired the procurement expert Tina Fegent from Orange as Grey's commercial director) and will work on the idea of job exchanges over the coming months.

Financial and time pressures have made such job swap programmes less prevalent than they used to be. Stephen Woodford, the IPA president, says: "A decade or so ago, it was more frequent. Marketing careers and advertising careers have become more specialised and people feel that there is less of a need to experience the other side."

Although it stops short of running a formal programme, J. Walter Thompson has consistently encouraged its account managers to work on the client side. Several years ago, Harry MacAuslan, its deputy chairman, spent 18 months immersed in the marketing team of the JWT client Nuclear Electric (now British Energy).

"Like most advertising people, I'd wondered how clients filled their time, thinking they just swanned into the agency to see the ads. I realised that advertising is a very exciting part of the day compared with checking through numbers or factory deliveries.

"It teaches the difficulties and the things client companies can't do, such as lateral thinking. But it put into perspective the role of advertising in the broader communications programme. It made me appreciate how clever and well-informed clients are and how few decisions ad agency people really have to make."

Job swaps between agencies have been tried too. In 2001, Robert Campbell, the creative director of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/ Y&R, and David Stuart, the creative director of the design agency The Partners, switched roles for a day as part of an article in the Financial Times and seemed to benefit from the experience. Stuart says: "There's none of the traditional 'creative versus suits' antipathy that we in design, rather smugly, suppose persists in advertising. In fact, with no dress code to assist me, in one meeting I had to ask for the creatives to be identified."

Campbell, for his part, came to a realisation about designers. "Their work is less driven by copy dates and big media budgets than mine, and therefore less stressful. They are more involved in the 'upstream' formation of companies and brands than advertising agencies," he says.

And other attempts have been made to break down the barriers between agencies and clients. The Creative Circle runs its Role Reversal Seminar, which presents advertisers with the chance to act as teams of agency staff pitching for business with creatives in the unfamiliar role of all-powerful client.

Creative Circle seminars, renowned for providing the opportunity for some drunken bonding, give clients and agencies some insight into each other's world.

Woodford says: "The biggest divide is the one between the creatives on one side and clients on the other. Anything that can bring them closer together is very helpful."

Now the IPA is looking at inviting clients on some of its courses to encourage a greater insight into how agencies work and, with agencies such as Grey looking at job swaps, it seems the issue of getting closer to clients is high on the current agenda. But perhaps we're still a way from seeing Sir Martin Sorrell running through the numbers at the local Ford dealership.