Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Should top management lead by example or set themselves apart by acting a bit flash?

A: If you've plotted your agency's brand position to sit squarely in the middle of the flash quartile, you can do both. Agencies lecture their clients on the critical need for brand differentiation - yet find it extremely difficult to differentiate themselves. Proprietary techniques (the USP and all its later imitators) rarely convince and never last. Much the most successful way to differentiate an agency is through the character and behaviour of its founders and principals.

The more mature among you may remember Peter Marsh, founder and figure-head of Allen Brady & Marsh. Peter, once an actor, was (still is) an uninhibited and bafflingly engaging exhibitionist. Straw hat and blazer, white Rolls Royce, new-business presentations often sung at the piano with Rod Allen: Peter was undoubtedly a bit flash; and, as a result, and quite deliberately, so was Allen Brady & Marsh. And for a considerable time, immensely successful. Nobody wondered what ABM stood for. Nobody confused it with any other agency.

To this day, Doyle Dane Bernbach owes much of its distinction to the character and talent of founder Bill. If you haven't yet read Ken Roman's biography of David Ogilvy, do so at once. Thirty-six years after he left the company and ten years after he left the world, Ogilvy the man is still the most potent clue to the character of the agency he invented.

But there must be a match. Agency bodies can reject incompatible implants as decisively as human bodies reject organs. Every other year, some adequate but unexceptional agency parachutes in some flamboyant outsider with orders to affect an instant makeover. Not only is the strategy obvious to all but the outcome's inevitable. The disparity between the two is hilarious and exaggerates the worst aspects of each. Slowly and tediously, the unexceptional agency grinds down the flamboyant one - who is eventually and expensively defenestrated. At which the agency heaves a deep sigh of relief and looks forward to many more years of undisturbed adequacy.

So if you're planning to set yourself apart by acting a bit flash, make sure you have an exit strategy in your hip pocket.

Q: My agency is recommending we buy posters positioned above the urinals in motorway service stations and I'm worried that the juxtaposition of our chewy mints with toilets will backfire even though we have got distribution in motorway services. My gut feel says "don't go there" but the head says "take a punt" because they're offering such a good rate to get us in - which way should I jump?

A: If you're as sensitive as you seem to be to the effect of association, how did you allow yourself to use "juxtaposition", "chewy mints", "toilets", "gut" and "backfire" in such an unfortunate conjunction? In any case, most chewy mints are used by women. The same cannot be said for urinals.

A salesman for a company selling washroom advertising tells me that "it's the most effective place to educate customers about my business because washroom advertising catches the audience at the rare time each day when they are literally craving for something to read". Do you think this is an over-claim?

Yes. And please don't send me any more questions about lavatories. There are alternative media.

Q: I've made three people redundant this year but really want to decorate the office this summer. Am I bad?

A: I suppose there must be some people who can make other people redundant and never lose a moment's sleep - but I'm glad I've never met one. So I know exactly why you've asked this question.

But clients should enjoy stepping through your front door. So should your best people. As professional optimists, agencies need to radiate hope and sunshine. Style matters. Allow your offices to peel and drabness to pervade, and your clients will soon find happier daytime homes to visit. Before you know what's happened, you'll be making another three people redundant. And all for the sake of a bit of Farrow & Ball.

Q: What positives can we take out of the recession so far?

A: We're 18 months closer to the end of it than we were 18 months ago.

- "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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