Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: I'm the chief executive of a mid-sized ad agency that (despite the recession) is actually growing pretty quickly.

Up until now we've had an internal PR girl who has looked after dealings with the press, but she's recently left to go travelling. When thinking about hiring a new one, my managing director has suggested looking for an external PR organisation, but I'm not sure. With PR so important for an agency of our size, what do you suggest we do?

A: A mid-sized ad agency isn't a big business. I doubt if you could afford (or would want to afford) a top PR practitioner from an outside company. More importantly, you shouldn't. You should start by examining your own attitude to PR. I know what it is even if you don't. Anyone who claims to understand PR is important, then writes "until now we've had an internal PR girl who has looked after dealings with the press", has failed to understand that PR is important.

You should pay as much attention to your relationship with the media as you do to your relationship with your clients. It won't be as time-consuming but in its own way it's as important. Yet I don't hear you saying: "Up until now we've had an internal girl looking after our dealings with clients, but she's recently left to go travelling."

There's not a lot to get hold of when you're writing about agencies. There's the work; there are the gains and the losses; and there are the lead players. If the trade press doesn't know, respect and conditionally trust the lead players, an agency will never be accorded the benefit of any doubt that it might deserve. And if your internal PR girl puts out a press release stating the agency has resigned the £56 million Anglo-Galvanized account on a point of creative principle when at least 100 people in the ad village know that you were fired for incompetence, any stock of goodwill that you might have enjoyed will be permanently depleted.

Like it or not, as the chief executive of a mid-sized agency, you're its marketing director, its brand planner and its most telling public face. Of course you'll need help and you'll need to be prodded and prompted to find the time; but you're the gaffer.

I'm all for delegation - but a leader who tries to sub-contract leadership is a bit of a contradiction in terms.

Q: An insurance client that we've recently won is approaching its tenth birthday. The brand hasn't had a remarkable first decade, but it's keen to celebrate the occasion with an ad campaign. Seems to me like you have to be a really well-loved brand to warrant a campaign of this stature (Heinz, Guinness etc), otherwise it just makes you seem self-important. Should we go along with what the client has suggested?

A: Agencies hate being presented with suggestions and are well-practised at shooting them down in flames. It's not always sensible. You may well be right that your client's motives for suggesting such a campaign are suspect and that the outcome could be a curdling concoction of self-congratulation. But great agency suits share one great skill: they can seize on a client's most impoverished suggestion, shower it with praise - and then with all the sleight-of-hand of a skilled illusionist, turn it into something totally different and very much better. The client, bemused, isn't entirely sure what happened but still feels that warm glow of authorship. Everybody's happy. It may be morally questionable but you can't fault the outcome.

So take this tenth birthday as a starting-point - as a given. Never underestimate the value of a starting-point, however unpromising. If I had to choose between an unpromising starting-point and something called complete creative freedom, I'd pick the unpromising starting-point every time.

Get your account group together and present it with a de Bono-type lateral thinking challenge: command them to come up with a campaign idea that makes use of this client's tenth anniversary, yet must under no circumstances contain the slightest hint of celebration or self-congratulation.

You'll be pleasantly surprised. They'll have seven respectable ideas before lunchtime and one outstanding idea. (If they don't, appoint a new account group.) Furthermore, since it wasn't your idea but his idea, your client will snap it up with enthusiasm. And you will have become one of the world's great suits.

Q: I have a hernia. My doctor says to take time off immediately but we have a big pitch in the next two weeks. What should I do?

A: England won the Ashes without Kevin Pietersen. Do you see yourself as even more important? Do as your doctor says.

- "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.