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On the Campaign couch

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We’ve just won a large US client. Should I hire some Yank account handlers to make sure they feel well-looked-after and understood, or do you think they’ll appreciate our old-world ways?

Since American advertising agencies seriously started colonising the world, getting on for a hundred years ago, the key to an agency’s international success has been more or less the same. You offer both national clients and regional outposts of international clients a combination of hard-headed, unsentimental US professionalism and local, grass-roots sensitivity. In the early days, you accomplished this by despatching a few good Americans, with family and furniture, by liner, to some remote destination such as London – then left them alone to get on with it. Quite quickly, the few good Americans found local talent and local premises and even local clients – and earned themselves the right to quite serious degrees of autonomy. Even today, when you’d think that jets, video-conferencing, Skype, 24-hour world news and smartphones made the understanding of subtle distinctions in national cultures no longer necessary, national cultures stubbornly refuse to conform.

One large agency network, with an otherwise excellent record of embedding multiple versions of its brand in foreign parts, found only France intractable. Its Paris office attracted no national business whatsoever. "Typical frogs!" raged the international vice-president. More thoughtful observers noted that its Paris office was located in the Time-Life Building, which proudly flew the Stars and Stripes and was managed by a 30-year-old trainee executive called Hank who spoke not a word of French.

If you now decide to service your new, large US client by hiring in a gang of Hanks, you’ll not only negate their reason for selecting you in the first place, but you’ll also insult them personally. Your tenure of this account may prove to be quite short-lived.

People often say that the best clients let agencies get on with the work, but I think my client has some really great ideas. Does that mean I’m the rubbish one?

In an ideal world, everyone should be licensed to think; to have ideas. And that should certainly include the client. But what your question implies – and I think rightly – is that advertising convention feels uncomfortable with that thought. Advertising convention assigns strictly circumscribed roles to nominated individuals – and deals harshly with those who attempt to exceed them.

The client is there to give a brief, pay the bills and approve the work. The account executive is there to hold everyone’s hand and pander to egos. The planner is there to do the planning. And the creative person is there to be creative. Anyone daring to step outside their allocated function gets short shrift. Since the creative person is there to have ideas, no-one else is allowed to.

All of which is a great shame – and, in fact, doesn’t even reflect reality. The reality is almost always one of false start, muddle, disagreement, despair, compromise: with unscheduled contributions from all quarters that are first contemptuously dismissed before being surreptitiously included in the hastily amended strategy. Only in retrospect – only when the submission to the IPA’s Effectiveness Awards gets compiled – does anything like orderly, sequential logic prevail.

But we really shouldn’t be taken in by our own gross misrepresentations. My advice to you is: glory in the muddle; encourage your client to have ideas but treat them with no disproportionate respect; and (the ultimate skill of the account executive) allow everyone to feel that they alone made the killer contribution.

Dear Jeremy, should alcohol have the same warning labels as cigarettes?

Near Victoria station, there’s a large sign addressed to motorists saying: "WEAK BRIDGE." A packet of peanuts tells you that "This packet may contain nuts". As you pass the airfield at Boscombe Down, you’re warned: "Danger. Low-flying aircraft." Quite often, the purpose of warning signs and labels is not to affect anyone’s behaviour but simply to be able to say in court: "The claimant was clearly warned, m’lud."

‘Ask Jeremy’, a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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