Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: I am an account executive at an agency that is going from bad to worse. We lost a major client, which was followed by redundancies, and now a complete cutback of agency expenses. Should I get out while I can, or stick it out and hope things pick up?

A: I suggest you do something that very few agency people have the stomach for: conduct a ruthless, unsentimental analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of your own company.

First, history. Has your agency been in existence for long enough to have been through turbulent times before and emerged intact? If so, there'll be an unspoken belief around - among clients, workers, competitors, even the trade press - that you're not terminally doomed. This in itself won't stop you from being terminally doomed, but it helps.

On the other hand, if you're a second-generation agency, and constantly being unfavourably compared with the talent and triumphs of your celebrated founders, momentum and optimism will not be with you.

Then, your management. Here you must distinguish between managements that practise thinking and those that practise wishful thinking. A thinking management will know why its agency exists, what it has to do to deserve to prosper, and will hire and honour clever, honest people to do it.

Managements addicted to wishful thinking will tell you of the hot contact they made last night at an industry dinner; of the ex-client who's just moved to a top job in BP; of the creative genius who's longing to join them from Wurst & Schnabel; of the extremely encouraging drink they've just had with an extremely influential editor; of the fantastic opportunities opened up by the recent loss of their biggest account; and of their new, inspired positioning statement for the agency: "The best-kept secret in London." All-staff e-mails from such managements are like prawn crackers: they're intended to be appetising but they're wholly without substance and leave a disagreeable taste in the mouth.

And then there's you. Account executives are like brand extensions: they either add to the authority of their brand or are totally dependent on it. Which are you?

So now you know. If you're working for a thinking management that knows what to do and is already doing it; and if you're personally capable of adding to the worth of your agency rather than leeching your fragile status from it: then don't just stick it out, but turn it around. It'll be the best time of your life.

And then, of course, there's the other conclusion.

Q: Dear Jeremy, my media agency seems to have turned into a research lab: it's neuro this, cognitive that and I can barely understand a word. Meanwhile, my procurement director just wants to make sure we're going to be paying less for everything next year than this. Can these two developments continue to co-habit or should I just accept that media is a commodity that should be traded for a good price and tell my agency to forget about the fancy stuff?

A: There are, as you must know, two main strategies for success in any sector.

You can contain cost and you can enhance worth. You should embrace both and sneer at neither; but they're totally dissimilar. There's a limit to the degree to which you can safely cut costs - even if you have to exceed that limit in order to establish it. There is absolutely no limit to the degree to which you can enhance worth. It's just very, very much more difficult.

Your media company comes up with what you call the fancy stuff for two good reasons. They quite want to sell you things that aren't as easy to price as a few centimetres of newsprint; and they're truly trying to understand things better, and so to help you get more for your money.

In other words, to enhance your brand's worth.

Some of their fancy stuff may be snake oil. But some of it (even including neuro this and cognitive that) might actually help you outwit the competition.

Imagine you're asked to play the balloon game. Your balloon is still sinking fast over Vesuvius. Only two passengers remain. Which do you eject next: your procurement director, who simply wants you to pay less for everything? Or your media agency, who just might help make your brand a great deal more desirable?

The chief executive of Asda recently voiced concerns about using celebrities in ads. But what, in your view, has been the most effective use of a celebrity in a campaign?

1. The Jolly Green Giant. 2. Mr Kipling. 3. The Bisto Kids.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683. Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haynet.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.


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