CLOSE-UP: REVIEW - ANOTHER BAD DAY AT THE OFFICE? Bullmore returns with advice for adland's anxious. JB's book has good advice but it finds him on his best behaviour, Chris Jones says

Q: In the course of my career in advertising, I had the opportunity

to work with JB and subsequently we have become quite well acquainted.

Now Penguin is publishing a selection of his columns from his Problem

Page in Management Today and I have been asked to review it in a

magazine. This presents me with a terrible dilemma. Do I heap uncritical

praise on the book and stand accused of cronyism and sycophancy? Or do I

try to demonstrate my independence of mind by picking holes in it and

risk being seen as a pygmy shooting peas at a giant? Given the character

of the magazine editor in question, any attempt to wriggle out of

writing this review would have consequences too horrible to

contemplate.



Anxious ex-adman, New York



A: For a start, I suggest you ask yourself a simple question. In truth,

don't you really admire this person? I suspect you do - and also that

you're not alone in this. Let's face it, you've probably never been

asked to write a Pelican, nor even a Puffin, let alone the full

Penguin.



To make matters worse, you think this book is rather good. Edifying as

well as entertaining and timed and priced just right for this year's

Christmas trickle; full of acute insight, which you'd expect from JB,

and rather more practical and actionable advice that you'll find in most

agony columns.



You certainly couldn't have written it, could you? Not you, nor anyone

else who reads Campaign ... or writes it, for that matter.



2002 will see many a hard-pressed manager making a long arm for their

Bullmore as they struggle with the latest knotty problem to spoil the

smooth warp and weft of life in the executive suite. JB has got a hit on

his hands and he deserves it. No wonder you're feeling anxious.



Once you've made a clean and public breast of these hard-to-face-facts,

you'll find yourself feeling on much safer ground if you choose to offer

the odd quibble. Perhaps I might suggest a couple of possible

angles?



One approach could be to express mild regret at the unchallenging nature

of some of the problems posed. If these correspondents are a typical

sample of British management nous, then what a pity that there isn't a

lucrative world market to be cornered in the importation of molehills

and their re-exportation as mountains. JB treats these long-hops with

unfailing patience and understanding. He shares their pain. His tone may

be firm, but his reasonableness is unremitting.



In fact, all the problems, from the trivial to the really big-brainers

(the hard-pressed finance director with her hand in the till, for

instance) are described by their agonisers with such aching sincerity

and decency that it must have been nigh on impossible not to respond to

them in a like manner. What tortures of self-restraint JB must have

endured in the cause of striking the right Auntly note. But in denying

himself, he to some extent denies the general reader too. The hallmark

Bullmore sting in the tail, so familiar to readers of Campaign, is

rarely in evidence here. The wasp is mainly confined to its nest and its

absence is felt. Why does JB feel so much less constrained in Campaign?

A different editorial brief is the most likely, but most boring

explanation. Or is it that a lifetime of close familiarity with

advertising people has bred contempt? Or perhaps its adherence to the

principle that you only tease the ones you love? Campaign readers can

only guess. Meanwhile, Another Bad Day at the Office? has JB on his best

behaviour, a state that is never conducive to being at one's best.



Another strategy might be to adopt a tone of wistful, yet respectful,

hope. This book is clearly a potboiler and a very good potboiler it is

too. However, it might not be an inappropriate moment to ask him: "Is

that it?" (A quick change of cliche follows.) This book has quite enough

substance to cause a ladder in all of the many Christmas stockings in

which it will undoubtedly find itself. But from Bullmore the master

builder, we seek more than a ladder. We still yearn for the Palladian

marble staircase.



The ever-expanding business section in any bookstore groans with utter

bollocks. Great business achievers stand in line on the shelves to

reveal (unwittingly, one assumes) just how boring and crass they really

are, in exchange for an advance that their accountants will file under

petty cash. By contrast, in his collected speeches and articles (Behind

the Scenes in Advertising), in his President's Address to the

Advertising Association a couple of years back, in his annual essays in

the WPP Annual Report, in On the Couch and in this book, JB has given

enough glimpses behind the curtain of his thinking for us to feel

certain that there is a really good book back there. An original and

important book about business and about brands, about people and about

communications. Clearly this is easy for us to say. We don't have to

write it. But then we couldn't, could we? That's just the point.



I think you'll find something along these lines will enable you to steer

a comfortable middle course in your review between piety (rock) and

impertinence (hard place). Having your cake and eating it is an even

more effective antidote to anxiety than Prozac.



There. Feels better already, doesn't it?



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