Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: An agency chief executive writes: My marketing director thinks we need a bar in our agency. I've always argued that the quality of our work should bring clients in, but she's adamant we need a funky client entertainment area. Is there any relationship between business success and size of break-out area?

A: I do wish you'd keep up. I've written before about agency marketing directors. They're good at taking tables at awards events and buying lunch for the trade press, but few of them even know what marketing means. (Mark you, they're not alone. Even grown-up marketing directors in great big important companies seldom seem to know what marketing means.)

Marketing means making sure that what consumers already want, or will want in the future, is what the factory makes. And then, and only then, drawing people's attention to it. In other words, marketing should be all about making what people want, rather than trying to make people want what already happens to be made.

What do the consumers of agencies want? They want their agency to have such an understanding of brands and business and communications theory and the nature of persuasion - together with strictly directed creative skills - that they have an above-average chance of transmuting their clients' budgets into net profit. That's all, really. Do you know a single agency marketing director who's had a permanent influence on the quality of an agency's output, strategically or creatively? Neither do I.

There. I feel better for that. Now it's time for me to have a go at you.

There's absolutely no excuse for you asking if there's a relationship between business success and the size of a break-out area. You expose your ignorance shamefully.

Unlike your marketing director, you're supposed to know something about advertising - which means you should have an instinctive understanding of brands. You should also know that the agency market is one of the most brand-sensitive markets of them all. There's never been an agency with a clear and sustained discriminating functional advantage; and there never will be. It's true that, hilariously, they continue to pretend that they each possess some unique bottle of snake-oil that guarantees a 35 percent increase in volume sales (but never, please note, or your money back); but the demonstrable truth is that, for well over 100 years, ad agencies have been evaluated on their total brand personalities. Yes, of course: in order to survive, they all have to deliver; there have to be a reasonable number of satisfied clients. But beyond that, they're all rated on the basis of some extraordinary consensus of subjectivity. There are the anarchists, the traditionalists, the flamboyant, the scholarly; the institutionalised and the wacky; the gentlemen and the players.

As an agency CEO, if you don't know where to plot your own agency on a Boston grid, you shouldn't be an agency CEO. And not only your existing brand position but your potential brand position: the one, if adequately justified through performance, that should lead to multiple account wins and personal and corporate glory.

Only then will you know whether to invest in a funky client entertainment area. I don't expect your marketing director to think all this through - but since, I trust, it's how you school your clients to manage their brands, you really should apply it to your own.

If you want to be respected as a deeply thoughtful and scholarly agency, a funky client entertainment area will bring on an acute attack of cognitive dissonance all round: not least among your own staff.

Q: I'm the boss of a medium-sized digital specialist agency and keep being asked to "white-label" campaigns for ad agencies who want to use us to do their digital production. I used to turn this sort of thing down without even thinking about it but I've started to worry a bit about the future. Are ad agencies going to try to move towards a TV model for digital, where they use specialists as production companies to execute their ideas? And if they succeed, what's the future role of the small-to medium-sized independent digital agency?

A: This is one of the great questions of our age and I look forward to returning to it. For the moment, I suspect you're right: digital experts will join all the other specialist craftsmen - artists, photographers, special effects wizards, composers - to whom the lead agencies increasingly subcontract execution. Only agencies with serious in-depth planning and strategic skills, and who understand the anatomy of business, can hope to earn and keep primary client relationships. But please let me know if you disagree.

- "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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