Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: What's your view of the agency of the future - and how should I be skilling up in preparation?

A: This is not the first time I've reminded you of the parable of the frozen lasagne, but I expect you've forgotten it. So here it is again - with its moral spelt out at the end just in case you're not alert enough to spot it for yourself. (I'm greatly indebted to an IPA Effectiveness paper for the basis of this story.)

Once upon a time, Company A launched a frozen lasagne and spent all its marketing money emphasising its differences from, and advantages over, all other frozen lasagnes. It did reasonably well. Soon afterwards, Company B launched its own frozen lasagne and spent all its marketing money pointing how this frozen lasagne was different from, and better than, all other frozen lasagnes. It did reasonably well. And not long after that, a third frozen lasagne was launched, by Company C. Unlike Companies A and B, Company C not only understood the absolutely fundamental satisfactions that all frozen lasagnes deliver, but cheekily appropriated them for its own. Far from attempting to find some spurious point of difference, which is what the first two lasagnes had tried to do, Company C's lasagne claimed ownership of frozen lasagne's generic properties. And Company C's lasagne did very well indeed.

At this point, quick-witted readers may stop reading. They will know already what the agency of the future should be like. Others may wish to read on.

For the past 50 years, and particularly over the past 20, agencies have sought to find points of difference for themselves. The decoupling of media from creative, the proliferation of new media and the development of new marketing techniques have all exaggerated this trend. Conferences are held to demonstrate the indispensibility of TV, radio, outdoor, interactive, word-of-mouth, local print, national print, point-of-sale, ambient, branded content, promotions, customer publications, virals, packaging and, for all I know, fridge magnets. The newer agencies strive to convince us that, not only do they understand the present and the future, but they also have a fine grasp of the past. The established agencies do the reverse. Neither camp is altogether convincing. Everyone's behaving like the first two frozen lasagnes. Nobody's behaving like lasagne C.

The agency of the future will have a fine, clear and cultured understanding of some primitive and timeless facts of life. They will understand the nature of choice, the nature of persuasion, and how people construct brands in their own heads. Nothing that's happened in the past 50 years has affected these timeless and generic truths. All the rest is tactics.

Only an agency that starts with such ancient understandings will be able to give a client dependable answers to these ancient questions: Where could I be? How can I get there? And how much will it cost?

I don't much care for your phrase "skilling up" - but that's what you should be skilling up for. If you can't do the rest yourself, you can always sub-contract. The alternative is to be a sub-contractor yourself.

Q: Is it unreasonable to expect to be taken out for a nice lunch by my agency, rather than being fobbed off with sandwiches in the boardroom? I know it's their way of showing that they are not wasting my money, but are ploughing it all into "the work". But, really.

A: It's not in the least unreasonable. You should write it into your contract. How can you and your agency get to know each properly if you only meet in meeting rooms, never share anything but tuna and cucumber and drink nothing but Badoit?

The best client/agency relationships are joyous affairs. The basis, of course, has to be professional; if you can't stand the work they do, The Ivy won't make it any better. But if you like what they do, and they like doing it for you, an agency/client relationship can be as multi-layered as any other sort of friendship and a lot more rewarding than most.

When you get to know each other properly, minor omissions will be understood and forgiven; idiosyncrasies on either side will entertain rather than irritate; your company's inevitable politics will be cunningly circumnavigated rather than grumpily resented; and something approaching the real truth can be openly told by all concerned.

You'll know this already, but just in case your financial director is listening, this sort of relationship delivers huge commercial benefits. You obviously haven't got such a relationship yet. If you had, you'd be having lunch together - and sometimes you'd be paying. Ask them out to lunch next week. Unless they're very stupid indeed, they'll get the message.

- "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.