Ask Jeremy

  • Date: From 1990s
  • Publishers: Campaign, The Guardian, Management Today

Over Jeremy’s ten-plus years as advice columnist, no problem was too big, too small or too ridiculous. Selected highlights below. 


Campaign: Writing for the world’s leading advertising magazine, Jeremy took on the concerns of its readers.

How to be management – and remain human

Q. I have to scrap the company car policy. I know it’s going to cause an absolute stink. What is it about advertising people and their cars?
A. Oh, you know … it’s this desperate search for identity that plagues all people with corrosive insecurity. Am I a Porsche or just an Austin Metro? Think Foxtons: but instead of Mini Coopers allow all your senior staff to drive Smart cars – painted in your corporate colours, naturally, and carrying a creative slogan. No congestion charges and, as promotional items, probably tax allowable as well. You’ll soon be the most talked-about agency in town.

Q. I’m trying to stick a knife in my CEO. How do I make it look like a pat on the back?
A. I know precisely how; but it is an immutable policy of mine to withhold help from shits.

The account director’s survival kit

Q. Do job titles really matter? I’m a senior account manager but want to be called account director because most of my friends are. My MD says it’s not about the title but about the job you do and the respect you have from agency staff and clients alike. I’m not after more money, just status.
A. Your managing director is right. Managing directors always are. In fact, he’s clearly such an exceptional talent himself, having earned such respect from both staff and clients, that there can be no case whatsoever for his clinging to that grandiose title. Next time you see him, make this point (it’s a kind of compliment; I’m sure he’ll see it that way) and offer him the following alternatives: graduate trainee, assistant procurement manager, janitor.
He'll respond testily by saying these are all honourable titles but applied to him would be inaccurate and misleading. To which you reply: “Aha! My point exactly! Since I direct my accounts rather than just manage them, I should clearly be called an account director.” (Drop all that stuff about status.)
You should be aware that this advice, excellent though it is, may not necessarily advance your career.

On legendary creative directors

Q. Are creative directors too old?
A. Too old for what?

Q. I am a senior creative with a reputation for leading-edge work who has been hired to put a creatively anonymous agency on the map. Any advice?
A. Here are four dynamic actions I would suggest you resist. Issuing an agency-wide memo entitled Raising the Bar.
Firing half the department you inherit and hiring, at three times the cost, the last two creative teams to have won obscure awards for obscure charities.
Publicly declaring that your deputy, an older person, will be responsible for the work on the agency’s five biggest clients since they are endemically incapable of recognising leading-edge creative work. You will, yourself, work only on enlightened clients’ accounts and new business.
Hiring, at your company’s expense, a public relations adviser to raise your personal profile.
Once you’ve decided against the above, the rest is simple.
Attack the problem bottom up, not top down: account by account. As soon as you’ve helped improve the work on the first account, move on to the second. By the time you’ve had an impact on four, the world will notice. This will take 18 months.
And never forget the words of Harry S Truman: “Anything is achievable as long as you don’t care who gets the credit for it.

On start-ups

Q. Boymeetsgirl. Nonsense or inspirational as an agency name?
A. I will tell you in seven years’ time. People continue to believe that names imbue objects with meaning. They don’t. Objects imbue names with meaning.
[Advertising agency Boymeetsgirl was founded in 2003, the year Jeremy answered this question. It went into liquidation in 2005.]

On client-agency relationships

Q. I am a multinational, blue-chip advertiser and the agency I use has been mentioned in the same breath as “financial irregularities”. If this proves to be justified, should I keep my business there?
A. I’m surprised you have the personal authority to change agencies. Most multinationals have agency alignment arrangements that can be modified only after minuted recommendations from the Global Communications & Strategy Committees in all three Operational Areas which are then subject to legal clearance in New York and final ratification from the Thirty Ninth Floor in Grand Rapids, Michigan. No wonder multinational marketing people feel manacled to their agencies and long to exercise the whim and fancy so enjoyed by their competitors – as delectably chronicled every week in Campaign.
However, you must wait and see. If the financial irregularities turn out to be both substantial and substantiated, you can certainly use this fact as the reason for firing your agency. If it all turns out to be empty rumour, you’ll have to find another excuse.

Q. I’d like to put in place a structure that makes sense to my board and rewards my agency’s input, which I greatly value. Is there a successful formula for remunerating an agency: fees, commission, success fee or a combination? Can the legal or accountancy professions teach advertising anything on this?
A. I have been hoping for well over a year now that nobody would ask me this question. Let me examine some options.
There is no sensible formula that relies on performance. Performance targets need to be set in advance. An ice-cream manufacturer enjoys a three-month heatwave while his principal competitor withdraws all stocks because of a salmonella scandal; annual sales and profit targets are comfortably exceeded by the second week in June. Why should his agency expect a success fee? (And why should the principal competitor’s agency have to fire 20 people?) No-one in the world has yet found an uncontentious way to isolate advertising’s discrete contribution; nor will they ever.
Fees, as everybody knows, are not fees at all. A fee is arrived at by first calculating a 15 per cent commission, then reducing it to nine per cent while claiming the difference to be a saving; and finally re-christening it. Fees are no more than niggardly commission rates in thin disguise. And standard commission rates are anti-competitive, probably illegal, and encourage sloth and over-manning amongst suppliers.
You wonder if the legal and accountancy professions can teach advertising anything. Indeed they could; but little that your board would warm to. Because of corporate law, lawyers and auditors can hold their clients to ransom; agencies can’t. And in this important difference, a. possible solution lies.
However involuntary their restraint may be, agencies are your only major suppliers to acknowledge their inferior status. If prompted, your board should be grateful for this; and might well wish to express that gratitude in generous manner. Try it, anyway.

Management Today: Practical advice for the UK’s business leaders

How do I tell my boss I hate his dog? October 2016

Q. I can't stand my boss's dog. He brings the mutt into the office most days and all my colleagues love her; they even take turns walking her. I can't tell my boss that I have an innate dislike of dogs (he treats her like his own child) and I can't escape the damn thing as we're in a small, open plan office. Help!
Jeremy says: I'm not sure why you can't tell your boss that you have an innate dislike of dogs. It's a fact, and you do. He's much more likely to be upset if he thinks that it's only his dog you can't stand. And whatever you say or don't say, your body language in the office is certain to make your feelings all too apparent.
To make your aversion seem less unreasonable, you should maybe invent a scary, childhood, dog-related incident. (There may even have been one?)

I overheard a private conversation in the gents and now I’m in shock, June 2013

Q: I was privy to a conversation between two senior directors in the men's toilets. They thought they were alone and didn't realise I was in one of the cubicles. I was alarmed to hear them talk about redundancies that they were going to have to make in the department and became desperately scared when I heard my name as one for the chop. We'd had a departmental meeting just two weeks before to reassure us that cuts were not going to be made, so you can imagine my shock. This was a week ago and I've yet to hear anything. Should I confront them?
Jeremy says:
I can quite understand your state of shock and uncertainty - but please think very carefully before you 'confront' anyone.
What would you say? That you'd overheard them talking about redundancies in the gents? And how would you expect them to respond? You'd put them in an impossible position.
If a decision about redundancies has already been made in principle but the communications process and details of compensation have yet to be agreed, they'd have no choice but to stall and bluster. Their shame and embarrassment at having been so stupid and unprofessional would be entirely deserved - but it would gain you nothing.
When you were reassured in the departmental meeting that no cuts were going to be made, was that reassurance given by one of those two senior directors or by someone else? If by your departmental head, for example, it's entirely possible that person was speaking in good faith, but because of the proper sensitivity that surrounds any redundancy programme, he or she may not have known what the latest position was.
I know that uncertainty of this kind can seem worse than the truth, however unpalatable. Your instinct to look for immediate clarification is entirely human - but I'm not sure you'll get it.
The best thing you can do is calmly assume that you'll soon be offered a reasonably acceptable redundancy package and you should therefore start planning the next stage of your career.
Should that turn out to have been unnecessary, you'll still have been through an extremely valuable thought process that you're likely to find curiously liberating.

Since taking maternity leave, I no longer feel part of the team, November 2016

Q. I'm back at work after taking a year's maternity leave. Although everyone has been very supportive, I no longer feel like part of the team. They all coped just fine without me, and I feel like I've become 'replaceable'. Have I inadvertently sabotaged my own career by taking a long baby break?
Jeremy says:
Teams begin to feel like teams - and to act like teams - in large part because of shared experiences. And the more intense the experience, the greater the bonding effect. A team that has worked together night and day for over a week, including a weekend, on a competitive pitch - and then won it - will feel an unspoken sense of belonging that may stay with them indefinitely.
In your year away, a lot will have happened. Your team will exchange shorthand references that mean a lot to them and nothing whatever to you. They won't be doing this with the deliberate intention of making you feel excluded; at the very worst, it's just insensitivity on their part. All this, I fear, is inevitable - and would be the case whatever the reason for your being away for a whole year. You mustn't start to think that you're somehow being penalised for having taken maternity leave.
All these rifts will begin to heal just as soon as you start playing a significant part in new projects; and that will take time. So, no: I don't think you've sabotaged your career.
Within a few months, you should be back on track. If you should decide to take a year's maternity leave again (and you mustn't let your current unhappiness deter you from doing so) you might consider applying to join a different team on your return.
It's rejoining old workmates only to find them comparative strangers that makes your present predicament so unsettling.

How can I ease the post-Brexit office tension? November 2016

Q: I run a PR agency with 15 staff. Opinion was split over Brexit and it caused a lot of tension in the office. Two members of staff still aren't talking to each other. Something needs to be done to manage the Brexit fallout. Any advice?
Jeremy says
: As a basic requirement, people working in PR should be able to understand the views and behaviour of the general public, even when - perhaps particularly when - those views differ markedly from their own. The country was split more-or-less down the middle over Brexit - and your agency would do well to remember that fact.
Your staff members who voted to Remain may well behave as if they are in the majority.
Well, they're not. And they probably believe that those who voted to leave are somehow pig-ignorant cretins; which is a perfect expression of that very urban sense of superiority against which more than half the country rebelled. You and your clients should be pleased that you have members of staff who have a natural affinity with both Stayers and Splitters. You need them both, so respect them both and tell them that you do.
It makes you a more balanced and professional agency. If you make it clear that you respect the views of both camps, it should greatly increase the chances of their respecting each other's choices.

Tips for handling ageism at work, February 2017

Q: I'm 75 and still work four days a week as a partner at an advertising agency. I've always loved my job, but I've started to feel that the younger partners think I'm 'past it'. They're always making jokes about me retiring to the golf course and quips about my age. Clients still respect me but I'm afraid my colleagues don't. Have you experienced ageism at all? Any advice on how to handle it?
Jeremy says:
You must be the only 75-year-old still employed by an advertising agency. According to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, the agency trade body, the average age of employees in UK agencies is under 35.
You say that clients still respect you and I'm sure they do.
But for what, I wonder? Is it the kind of respect they would accord a Chelsea Pensioner, or do they respect your advice? Because that's the vital distinction - and one you need to be clear about.
Establishing which isn't difficult: it just requires an open mind, a certain amount of courage - and a willingness to accept the unpalatable.
Ask yourself these questions. When was the last time: ... a client meeting was rearranged because you couldn't make it? ... your partners insisted you were part of a new business pitch? ... a client asked you for your private opinion about an advertising matter? These answers will tell you all you need to know.
If people in the agency and their clients still want to know what you think, and if they take your opinion into account before deciding on action, that's all that matters. Forget the jokes; 20-year-olds often feel uncomfortable working with colleagues as old as their grandparents and make jokes to lessen their discomfort.
But if there's no spontaneous demand for your opinions and your presence, I suggest you tiptoe quietly away.

The Guardian: Jeremy reached his widest audience when he was recruited as agony uncle for the global news organisation

An apprenticeship or university – which will be better for my creative son?

Q: My youngest son is 18 and finishing his A-levels. He is very creative and would like to work eventually in a media, advertising and/or film role. He has an offer of a place on a higher education course starting in September. We know this university well as his brother graduated from it and now works as a motion graphics designer. My dilemma is the obscene amount of student finance needed for a degree. I have found an apprenticeship run by a global media company which pays £17,500 a year and involves one day a week at college studying for a level 3 qualification. Although my son would benefit from the industry experience and lack of debt, there would be a lot of creative compromises and I don’t want to rob him of the opportunities his older brother had by going to university.
Jeremy says:
I believe you can make this difficult decision only after open discussion with your younger son. As I’m sure you know, there is nothing to show that an apprenticeship is less likely to lead to rewarding employment than a relevant degree. Indeed, many with degrees are still without jobs many months after graduation.
So if, between you, you decide that your son should go for the apprenticeship (which, of course, he’s not certain to gain) what will he miss that his elder brother enjoyed? He’ll miss three years of living, working and learning with others of the same age and interests; people who often become lifelong friends and valuable future contacts. And he’ll miss the “prestige” of a degree, which can be a necessary pre-condition for certain types of job, including the creative industries. But again, the experience gained from a completed apprenticeship will to many employers be an equivalent reassurance of suitability.
In the end, I believe, the choice is your son’s. If he’d feel deprived of a university education – if he felt that his older brother had been unfairly favoured – then I believe you need to face the financial consequences and see that he gets one. But a lot of young people are impatient, they want to start working just as soon as possible, and to learn as they go. The thought of another three years of mostly theory doesn’t fill them with enthusiasm.
If your son is genuinely one of those and isn’t just pretending to be out of consideration for you, then an apprenticeship is not a second best – it’s the one he and you should pursue.

In his July 2017 farewell article, Jeremy summarises a 12-year series. There seems, he writes, to be several quite common types of problems that Guardian readers experience; most, but not all of them in offices.

Yes, I’m afraid this is my last Dear Jeremy column. Over the past 12 years I must have read, and responded to, about 1,500 readers’ letters. I have very little idea how those readers responded to my advice: feedback is extremely rare. While I hope that some of it was of practical help, I’m sure much of it missed the point altogether.
Just reading those letters, however, and pondering on the problems they described, proved an educational journey. There seem to be several quite common types of problem that Guardian readers experience; most, but not all of them, in offices. Here are just three.

Being picked on by a line manager

When a person in a position of authority develops an apparently irrational antipathy towards a more junior person and goes out of their way to make that person’s life intolerable, the victim is reduced to a mystified, impotent sense of injustice. Even when – perhaps particularly when – there is clearly no justification for such victimisation, the damage to the victim’s self-confidence can be serious – and if allowed to continue, career-threatening. Any decent company will identify such bullying and deal with it decisively, but some, shamefully, appear to condone it.

A common and in many ways admirable emotion on the part of the victim is a determination “not to let them win”, but that can be self-destructive. To walk away from such a company is not to admit to defeat; it’s a head-held-high demonstration of individual freedom and self-will. It’s the tormenter who will have failed.

Incomprehension of another’s behaviour

Office life often means being in close proximity with someone on a daily basis, yet who you barely know. You may find them cold, unfriendly, pernickety or occasionally downright rude. Before rushing to judgment, however, it’s always worth applying a conscious dollop of empathy. And by empathy, I don’t mean super-size sympathy: I mean an open-minded and quite deliberate attempt to see the world through the eyes of others.

By beginning to understand how other people may see you – however, warped you believe that perception to be – you’ll be halfway towards an amicable resolution of differences.

Petty wars and how to end them

The hothouse atmosphere of many offices – the same number of people confined day after day in the same space – can have a magnifying effect on almost everything. One person’s involuntary mannerism, harmless in itself, can come to be obsessively infuriating to another. When there’s a working roster, with people taking it in turns to take Friday afternoon off, it can become a combustible topic if someone repeatedly tries to jump the queue.

Sometimes, when the heat is really on and tempers are flaring, the most effective response is to apply a form of jujitsu: you quite simply give way. You don’t give in; this is no capitulation – you’re not conceding that anyone was right and you were wrong. Your reward is a deeply private sense of victory: you’ve let that silly, insignificant person feel an initial feeling of achievement that turns out to be a strangely empty one. Private satisfactions of this kind are greatly underrated.

As I sign off I wish you all the best in the world of work – and many thanks for all your letters over the years.