A: A long time ago, when I had an important title in an advertising agency, an important client came to see me with an important complaint. He was, he said, deeply dissatisfied with almost every aspect of the agency's performance. The planners had contributed nothing to his company's strategy; the creative work was invariably overdue, overbudget and boring; and the media schedule was unimaginative and unfocused. He was, said the client, extremely sorry for Nigel. He had nothing but praise for Nigel, but felt that he was being seriously let down by the support he was receiving from the rest of the agency.
As I do not need to tell you, Nigel was the senior account person, the highest-paid member of the group, whose quite specific responsibility it was to get the best from the agency on behalf of his client. Indeed, that was all he was charged with doing.
Nigel and the client were all for changing the entire account group with the exception of Nigel. The agency management was all for getting rid of Nigel and keeping everybody else. With some difficulty, we won. Angus took over responsibility for the account, nothing else changed, and within six months the client was giving us our best-ever formal appraisal. Nigel left the business altogether and is now a successful llama breeder.
I've long believed that senior account people should be judged on their portfolios. The common factor in excellent work across a range of accounts is just as likely to be an account person as a creative person. Conversely, a few highly regarded account people can be guaranteed to deliver nothing but mediocrity while continuing to delight their clients and climb the stairway to the stars.
I mention all this because, however sickening your sycophantic account people may be, they don't yet seem to have got in the way of the work.
And for that you should be truly grateful. For all their yukkiness, they may even be contributing to it. The occasional schmooze is a cheap price to pay for consistently good work. And if it really gets intolerable, tell them you're taking an Open University degree in asceticism and must from now on forgo all social intercourse.
Q: I work for a major company, replete with FMCG brands. I know communications channels are changing and have repeatedly turned to my creative and media agencies to steer me through, but they seem pre-programmed to recommend TV commercials. I'm now considering launching an in-house comms planning division but don't know how to attract the best talent. What do you advise?
A: For 50 glorious thought-free years, television commercials were the recommended remedy for every known marketing complaint. Reputation lag? Take three 30-second commercials a week until symptoms ease! Competition getting feverish? You need intravenous TV! Thank you for visiting my clinic - I recommend you undertake a 12-month regimen of burst versus drip, split nationally! Now, what's your problem?
Creative teams came into advertising with the sole aim of doing cool telly ads. Agencies were judged entirely on the reel. Huge transfer fees were paid for a couple of hot potatoes who'd never delivered more than three usable minutes of film in the course of a year. The chance to hang out with celebrity directors, combined with mouth-watering production mark-ups, made the television medium every ambitious agency's default setting.
De-tox will take a very long time. Decades of addiction will have to pass slowly through the institutional system before true, instinctive purity returns. The small and the young will find kicking the habit a good deal easier than the big and the old.
But please, whatever you do, don't set up an in-house comms planning division. Only those unemployable elsewhere will apply. Those you take on will be despised by their free-market equivalents and will lose whatever scraps of self-esteem they ever had. And you'll never know if the advice you're getting is truly informed and disinterested - or just a craven play for their boss' approval.
Meanwhile, continue to be fierce with your existing agencies. Of course they can do it. And they'll be extremely grateful to you for making them.
- "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 email@example.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.