Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

The following question comes from Sirin Ediger, a reader in Turkey.

Q: I would appreciate it if you could inform me on this issue: Agencies spend days and nights to develop campaigns for their clients. Finally time for presentation arrives. They present all their creative work to their clients. The client assesses the work in a few minutes and makes the final decision. The question is, despite the agencies long working hours, expertise and concentration on the very subject, how could the outcomes be rationally evaluated by the client who spends relatively less time and energy on advertising?

This is one of the biggest dilemmas of our profession. Let's say, we demonstrate a TVC to the client. The marketing manager says he finds some scenes to be unceremonious. However, the agency opinion is that the mentioned scenes are the ones that will make the film popular. Which party should be giving the final word? For this reason, at least to minimize this problem, I would like to know whether there is a standard documentation for agencies to hand out to their clients in order to lead them to assess creative work on a much more rational level. Is there a method to moderate clients for them to make more objective comments instead of subjective and biased ones?

A: Dear Sirin, many thanks for your question, which will strike a familiar chord with a great many agency people around the world. To start at the end: no, there's no standard document for agencies to give their clients that will help them judge creative work. The UK's IPA (www.ipa.co.uk) has a Best Practice Guide called Judging Creative Ideas, which many find useful - and there are some wise and witty words on the same subject in Len Weinreich's book, 11 Steps to Brand Heaven (Kogan Page). There will be others.

When client and agency fail to reach agreement, you ask, which of them should be given the final word? This, of course, is at the heart of the matter and there can be only one answer: the client. David Ogilvy was no craven yes-man and in his time persuaded many of his clients to accept original - and therefore theoretically risky - creative solutions to their problems. But he repeatedly reminded us that it was the client's money. Of course they must have the final word. If an agency remains convinced that their client is wrong, they can resign the business; but that, as with all forms of suicide, is always an admission of failure.

Judging creative work will never be done, in your phrase, at a purely rational level. There can never be prior proof of success. Most advertising case histories are master classes in post-rationalisation (or induction - the more respectable way of putting it). Agencies must rely on the level of trust they've established with their clients and their powers of persuasion - they are, after all, professional persuaders.

One of the essential talents of successful persuaders is to be able to divine what's in the hearts and minds of those they're attempting to persuade; so you must give a great deal of thought to what's in the hearts and minds of your clients. To them, all creative proposals are a hypothesis - which is another way of saying a gamble. You're gambling not only with your client's money, but also his business, his personal reputation and very possibly his career. If a campaign idea turns out to be a disaster, the agency can always turn its attention to other accounts. The client may have to turn his attention to a headhunter.

And never forget that the client in the room, the client you're talking to, is very rarely authorised to give you the ultimate go-ahead. He has to return to his own company, perhaps to his own board of directors, and persuade them in turn of the value of your proposals. So what ammunition have you provided him with? If you've simply said, "Come on, trust us, show some guts, we're the experts in communication, we know best", that's not going to help your front line client get approval for a multimillion expenditure when faced with his deeply sceptical financial director. You've left him very vulnerable. So prepare the arguments for your proposals with as much care and imagination as you expended on the proposals themselves. Look for precedents of principle and analogies. Build in communications checks to make sure you're being understood. Great advertising campaigns need their own careful campaigns if they're to be approved with confidence.

I'm sorry if this answer disappoints you. But can you imagine what it would be like if all your clients accepted absolutely everything you recommended - instantly and with no amendments? In theory, I suppose, it would be wonderful - but it would frighten me to death.

- "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.