Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: I'm the chief executive of a well-known ad agency and the board account director in charge of our major drinks clients has told me he's almost certain that the marketing director is trying to get us fired without good reason.

Last week, this client asked me to join him on a trade visit - he starts drinking early and finishes late, so these are ordeals I usually avoid, but under the circumstances, I agreed. I should also say that his managing director, with whom we have a strong relationship, had asked me to keep an eye on him. Around tea time (scampi and chips) in a dingy pub in Nottingham, and to my astonishment, he said I should fire our board account director on the grounds of incompetence and then offer him his job!

Later, we met up with the rest of the agency and marketing team for an evening meal (curry) and then went on club visits culminating in a late-nighter (doner kebabs) after which we walked back to the hotel.

The following morning, as I was having room-service breakfast (scrambled egg on toast), a distraught account executive knocked on my door saying he had been groped by the marketing director on the way back the night before and wanted to bring charges against him.

Do I: a) Put all this down to excess alcohol and let it all blow over?; b) Fire my board account director, hire the marketing director to do us and his managing director a favour and consolidate the account; c) Bring charges against the marketing director for sexual harassment, enabling his managing director to fire him and keeping the account?; d) Some other option I haven't thought of?

A: d).

Q: We carried out a price elasticity study and our brand has a "double peak" - the price at which we're selling and a higher price at which we could sell with a small loss in volume, but a big increase in profit. My instinct (and bonus) says raise the price pronto. Would this be in the spirit of the times?

A: There's nothing about the spirit of the times that requires you to sacrifice profit. What the economy needs is more, not less. But please be just a little cautious in interpreting that price elasticity study. Remember New Coke - the most thoroughly researched new product launch in the history of mankind. In millions of blind tests, a majority of respondents preferred New Coke to Old Coke. But the Coke people quite forgot to tell their respondents that the introduction of New Coke would mean the withdrawal of Old Coke. So when Old Coke was withdrawn, the American nation staged a walk-out. Within weeks, Old Coke was back.

What your study may have omitted to do is check the acceptability not just of the higher price point, but crucially, the actual act of raising the price. That's where the spirit of the times comes in. How dare they? Don't they know there's a recession on? Money-grubbing, that's what it is! Worse than MPs, and that's saying something! Bloggers do outrage very well. For the sake of your bonus - and very possibly your job - what about a timid little test market somewhere?

Q: Do you favour observing group discussions from behind a one-way mirror wall, or from a position in the corner of the room itself?

A: Jon Steel, the prince of planners, favours a corner seat in the room itself - and he's right. Behind the mirror, client and agency people feel dangerously insulated from the punters. Ribald remarks are made and point-scoring goes on. It's all a little remote, rather like studying one of those ants' nests in great big glass tanks that once prospered on seaside piers. (Usually billed as: "Study Them In Their Own Home! They're Alive! And They're Completely Naked!" - which was indeed entirely true.)

If you're in the room itself, you can sense the mood more accurately, you listen more attentively and fibbing is a great deal easier to spot. And being in the room has another advantage: it severely limits the number of those observing. Cower behind that glass wall, and you can accommodate three clients, two researchers and five agency people - including the planner who's been locked in philosophical conflict with the two creatives since the brief arrived three months ago. That's no way to tease out truth. Selective perception triumphs.

Ten different people, all nursing fiercely held but irreconcilable opinions, all find support for their disparate convictions. Prejudices are confirmed, positions hardened, hypotheses validated. You're back where you started.

The greatest value from group discussions (how do they differ from focus groups?) comes from the meticulous reporting of a single, trusted reporter.

- "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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