Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: The digital agency my partners and I founded five years ago has built a good reputation. Now a big traditional shop wants to buy us. The price is right but we're afraid that if we sell we will just become the "geek department" confined to the "tekky" stuff. Is there any way of ensuring that doesn't happen?

A: There's absolutely no way you can ensure it doesn't happen. Advertising agencies are professional optimists, which is why they go on making the same mistakes over and over again. But it might still be worth giving your potential parents a short, stern history lesson. The reason they want to buy you is because you can do things they can't. Furthermore - and this is the critical bit - even if they could do them, no-one would believe it. Clients and commentators are at one in believing that agencies are incapable of being superlatively good at more than one discipline.

For years, extremely talented individuals laboured unrecognised in full-service agencies; they were pack designers and direct marketing specialists and PR professionals. The work they did was as good as any done anywhere; yet the companies they worked for continued to be thought of as advertising agencies; so the advertising agencies found it impossible to charge realistic fees for the non-media work that their talented specialists did; so the talented specialists remained not only grossly under-recognised but also grossly under-paid. It was only when these prisoners escaped from their windowless departments into the bright sunlight of their own companies that reward of all kinds began to match the value of their work.

If you simply bang on to your potential parents about your insistence on continued professional independence, they'll secretly brand you as members of the Silo Mentality - and there is, today, no more serious charge. They'll agree to your every request, naturally; they need you badly. But once they've got you, little by little, your sovereignty, your reputation and your attractiveness to talent will all begin an irreversible process of erosion.

So forget what's in it for you; concentrate entirely on what's in it for them. Take them through the history lesson as outlined above. Point out that, if they departmentalise you, they'll lose the entire value of their investment within a year. It just might make them see sense - but I wouldn't count on it.

Q: Is advertising the art it used to be?

A: Oh, dear. Who have you been talking to, I wonder? Advertising has never been an art and never will be. Art doesn't have to do anything; it just is. That's the whole point of art. Whereas the whole point of advertising is that it does something. Unless advertising does something, it has no right to exist. Please make a note of this simple distinction and pass it on.

Q: I'm a managing director at a digital agency and my young creative talent keeps jumping ship as soon as the above-the-line agencies wave a handsome cheque under their noses. Without a financial carrot to entice them back to me, I simply can't hold on to them. But invariably they come crawling back when the bright lights of above-the-line digital isn't what they expected. Do you think I should be welcoming them back with open arms? Or turning the traitorous scamps away at the door?

A: I simply don't understand what you're complaining about. Just imagine you were Sky - or Virgin. And all your subscribers kept skiving off to Virgin - or Sky. And nothing you could do in the way of bribes or promotions could prevent them. And then a month or two later, they all came scurrying back having found the bright lights of the competition not at all what they'd expected. What would you do? Brand them traitorous scamps and refuse them re-entry? Or welcome them home?

Some brands score a much higher approval rating among non-users than among users. Those are the brands that every sensible marketing man dreams of as perfect competitors. And that's exactly what you've got. Be joyful.

What's more, when young creative talent leave you, they're not jumping ship, nor are they committing a villainous act of treachery. They're simply hoping to make more of the one life they have. So when they come back, they shouldn't feel the need to crawl any more than you should feel the need to crow. Buy them a drink, winkle out anything useful they've learnt (they're bound to have learnt something useful) - and make sure they talk freely about their disappointing experience to all your other restless talent.

- "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@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.

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