Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: After 40 years in the industry, I'm finding that the clients I have to speak to are getting younger and more cocky. I find them brash, loud, irritating and not at all like clients used to be in my day. However, because of an unfortunate gambling problem and some greedy wives, I can't afford to retire yet. What can I do?

A: Forty years ago, you were almost certainly young, brash and cocky yourself. And you probably had to deal with clients in their sixties, staid in their ways and boring to spend time with. Luckily for you, they tolerated your youthfulness and allowed you to remain employed. Though you never acknowledged it, you learnt a lot from them.

If you now find the clients you have to deal with (what a revealing phrase) not only brash and loud but also irritating, you're no longer fit for purpose. Unless you learn to enjoy their company, you won't have to make a retirement decision. It will very soon be made for you.

Q: I'm only 35, which I think is still quite young, and I am the managing director of the agency I work for. However, I just got "promoted" to a global account director role. At first I was chuffed but then I heard a colleague snickering about how I'd been put out to pasture already. Was he right? Am I about as much use now as a milkless cow?

A: I'll return to your question in about five minutes. First, some history.

Forget about creative people for a moment and others with specific skills. Let's just examine how people with account management backgrounds have historically risen to vertiginous agency heights. Without exception, they've ridden to glory on the backs of big-spending, satisfied clients; and it's easy to understand why. Agencies are service businesses. Talk of partnerships is flabby rubbish. Clients hold all the cards. They are the only source of an agency's income. Their accounts are the only canvas on which an agency can display its talent. They can call a review, with or without justification, at any time. Agencies became international not because they were driven imperialists but because their clients demanded it: agencies either opened an office in London, England, or lost the business.

None of this excuses cowardice, toadiness or the neglect of principle; but it's a naked, indisputable fact. All power is derived from clients; and within the agency, account directors are their proxies. So it's no surprise to find more people from account management at the top of agency heaps than from any other discipline. It may also be that they are far better businessmen and administrators and all that; but at root, their power is proxy power. I once observed at close range how one account director of monumental stupidity and incompetence steadily became very senior indeed. His technique was simple. Whenever one of his clients complained, he fired his entire account group and started again. As he mendaciously claimed, his clients insisted on it.

If you want to pin down the centres of power in an agency, simply observe who comes first in the queue for resources. From the IT trouble-shooter to the ECD, account barons - those surrogate clients - get priority service. And so, from those barons, the next MD is likely to emerge.

Until quite recently, say the last 30 years, the MD of a national agency was the undisputed top banana. There was probably a chairman around as well, for cosmetic effect and the occasional platform appearance, but everyone knew who was boss.

Then, with delicious timing, two things happened. MDs decided they'd sound even more imposing if they were called CEOs; while simultaneously, their power began to be challenged. Multinational clients became global, appointed global marketing directors who, in turn, demanded an equivalent figure from their agency networks. As ever, the agencies complied.

Now there are global account directors with more client proxy power than the whole of a medium-sized agency.

So I'm puzzled by your snickering colleague. Either he knows something that you don't know or he doesn't know anything. Probably the latter; snickerers are notoriously stupid.

Q: A media studies student texts: Jez, well up against it at the mo! Any tips U can give for ths essay. Thx, Dez. "Advertising is the art and sole of capitalism. It captures a moment of time through the lens of commerce, reflecting and affecting our lives, making us laugh and cry, while giving traction to the engine that propels this free market economy forward into the future. Discuss."

A: If you don't mind awfully, I'd rather not.

- "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.