Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Lennard Maronde writes: Dear Jeremy, Being a second-year student looking for a one-year placement in the advertising industry is not easy.

Having talked to a fellow one-year-wannabe student about how he tackles the seemingly impossible task, he replied he had: baked a cake with his cover letter printed on top, sent a pay-as-you-go mobile with only his number to the chief executive and tied his name and number between two trees across the street of an agency. I admire his enthusiasm, but is this the right way forward? Are cover letters just old-fashioned and boring?

A: Thanks, Lennard. You clearly have your doubts about this wannabe's approach and I sympathise.

Yet if you attach an ordinary covering letter to your CV and send it to the chief executives of the top 50 ad agencies requesting a one-year placement, only three will even see it. None will offer you a place. I know this shouldn't be the case but it is. And try as hard as I may, I can't get indignant about it. Chief executives have many, many things to worry about and evaluating the relative merits of students isn't high on the pile.

So the need to draw attention to yourself, to make yourself different from all the other wannabes, is a real need and shouldn't be mocked. The question is how.

If your godfather is the marketing director of Diageo, your problem is solved. I know this shouldn't be the case but it is. Your letter starts: "Dear M/s Fothergill, It was my godfather, Montgomery Plankton, who suggested I write to you." It would be crass - and should be unnecessary - to mention his corporate status. This letter will be seen by 43 chief executives and responded to by the same number. However, should you not have a godfather with a vast marketing budget, you'll need to think again.

It's a good idea to start thinking of yourself as a brand. Like it or not, you are one - so you might as well begin to have some influence over it.

By baking cakes, giving away mobiles and daubing your name on a couple of plain trees, you undoubtedly distinguish yourself from the others - but you hardly distinguish yourself. If the National Gallery decided to encourage attendance by having the Cheeky Girls give away free copies of Asian Babes in Trafalgar Square, they would certainly attract a great deal of publicity. They might also, as we say in the trade, devalue the brand a fraction.

Attracting publicity, if you don't care what kind, is a relatively easy thing to do: but it may not make you attractive.

So, Lennard, your real challenge, and it's one that you'll face a thousand times when you finally get that job, is to devise a way of saying quite ordinary things, in this case about yourself, in a quite extraordinary way. That way you'll not only get yourself noticed; you'll also demonstrate you've got the kind of talent that agencies should be looking for.

There: I've done the difficult bit. Now all you've got to do is write the ad. Lots of luck, anyway.

Q: I'm an account director at a leading agency, known for its pitch acumen. The trouble is, I'm working every hour of every day. So is my team. How many weekends should we be expected to work on the trot? At what point does it become exploitation? We need more staff, but how do I tell the management this, without seeming work-shy?

A: No glib answers: it's a horrible problem. One of the most attractive characteristics of advertising agencies is their almost manic willingness to work ridiculous hours for weeks on end. No strikes, no downing of tools, no appeals to the Father of the Chapel. Apart from the effect on health and family, it's almost entirely admirable. It's also dangerously open to exploitation.

So I think you've got to stop worrying about appearing work-shy and make a date to see your chief executive. Resist the temptation to go with a couple of mates; it immediately becomes a delegation. Go alone - it's braver and better - but still speak for others rather than yourself. Point out gently that the agency's winning reputation will soon self-destruct. And don't tell a soul you've done it. If it's widely known he's under pressure, your chief executive will find it much more difficult to take action.

Q: My agency is on a roll right now having landed a very sizeable account and retained another. Rivals are accusing us of "buying the business in" and bad mouthing us around town and in the trade press. Should I just keep quiet or bad mouth them back?

A: Just keep quiet. Rolls don't last; bitchiness does.

- "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.