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On the campaign couch...with JB

Q: I'm creating a Christmas TV campaign for a client and they're insisting on using a celebrity. I hate the idea but they're dead set on roping in some Z-lister to front the campaign.

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What could I say to persuade them otherwise?

I assume you’re talking about next Christmas? So you’ve got plenty of time. Entirely understandably, nothing infuriates clients more than having their ideas rejected by agencies. To start with, they shouldn’t have to be having ideas in the first place, for God’s sake: isn’t that what their overpaid agency is supposed to be doing? Clients have enough problems with their retailers and financial directors. They want their agencies to be optimistic, positive, to find solutions to things: not be bloody obstructive.

So you’re wasting your time trying to persuade your client not to use a Z-list celebrity – and you’re probably putting the account at risk as well. All you need to do is come up with a Christmas TV campaign that is clearly, demonstrably, heart-warmingly better. And that’s what you should have done in the first place.

Q: Jeremy, how do you explain the fact that the overwhelming majority of agency bosses have been promoted from within after spending years, and in some cases decades, with their agencies. Why are agencies reluctant to look at external candidates or even those from other industries?

Reichsmarschall Hermann Wilhelm Göring is supposed to have said: "Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my
revolver." He probably didn’t say it; and if he did, he was probably referring to opera and stuff like that. I feel very much as he did (or didn’t) about the other kind of culture – but I can’t think of a better word for it. Charles Handy summed it up as: "The way we do things round here."

Every company, whether it sets out to or not, has a culture. Founders of successful companies almost invariably spawn distinctive, almost palpable cultures. In David Ogilvy’s case, it seems to have been the
result of quite conscious brand-planning. Few cultures are written down or monitored. There’s never been a chief culture
officer, as far as I know; perhaps because that’s what chief executives or chairpersons ought to be. In most companies,
it’s thought to be quite cool to pretend they don’t exist. The word culture itself doesn’t help at all: very poncey indeed.

But company cultures ("The way we do things round here") do exist; and they are hugely important. The newest recruit will get a feel for one after just a couple of weeks. When faced with difficult decisions, senior executives won’t reach for the Standards And Ethics Manual issued by the CSR Committee; they’ll know instinctively how we do things round here.

And as long as its culture remains benign, and keeps in tune with the times, the company has a property beyond price. It’s what keeps the ship stable.

But cultures are also strangely fragile. A run of misfortune, of the kind that every agency endures from time to time, can get whispers going. Nothing is said openly, but doubts surface. An informal opposition party, composed mainly of the disappointed (and even under the most benign of cultures, there are always those who feel less valued than they believe their talents merit), meet in pubs and stay too late. And subtly and insidiously, that instinctive understanding of how we do things round here is watered down and dissipated. New heroes emerge and are aped and followed. People start making up things as they go along.

Once lost, a corporate culture is hard to retrieve. And often, of course, when one of a culture’s ingredients has been complacency masquerading as confidence, it shouldn’t be retrieved but renovated. But by whom?

So I’ve finally got to your question. You can’t bring in an outsider as a boss, particularly from another sector, without precipitating an extremely unsettling questioning of absolutely everything: and often with no clear idea of a proposed alternative. Sometimes that’s inevitable. But most agencies, like other brands, are best resuscitated not from the top down but from the bottom up, based on the best of what has been before. And because cultures need to be felt, outsiders, through no fault of their own, may find that difficult.

There are other, less respectable reasons – but I think that’s the main one.

An agency chief writes: Dear Jeremy, I still drink at lunchtime and I still smoke. In the current climate, should I try to hide these traits from my colleagues and clients?

Please don’t. We need you.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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