Keeping one’s rep with the reps

They show us reels, they show us photographers and in Cannes, they show us a hell of a good time…

So there’s nothing wrong with seeing a rep now and again, is there? Reps are hired as much for their charm as their cinematic (or photographic) knowledge. And, for a male creative, it’s always pleasant to spend half an hour with a highly attractive young woman, plus, you’re finding out about new directors, enjoying a little light gossip … it all seems perfectly harmless.

But what about when they start buying you lunch? Dinner? Or more? Have you crossed a line?

Other industries are more conscious than ours about the influence reps have. Especially the medical profession. Pharmaceuticals is a lucrative game and with each doctor prescribing millions of pounds worth of pills a year, it’s no wonder drug company reps supply free mugs and pens. Not to mention lunches, dinners, and trips to sham ‘international conferences’, aka holidays.
Some medics are shameless. A memo spread around the internet recently – a Baltimore medical practice specifying to pharma reps exactly what time they should deliver the surgery’s free lunch, and which restaurants were acceptable in terms of quality.

But other doctors feel guilty – there’s now a ‘pledge’ website called No Free Lunch, where medical professionals confess to the freebies they’ve accepted, and resolve to quit the habit. And so they should. Research has shown that handouts from pharmaceutical reps can influence decisions that doctors make, even if they think they don’t.

In a previous career I commissioned printing, so I used to get taken out by the printers. Unlike production company reps they were all blokes, which meant it was football matches, clay pigeon shooting, the cricket. Great fun. But I remember feeling quite dirty when I gave my next job to the last printer who licked my bum, as it were.

So should we have more qualms about accepting the occasional lunch or dinner? Should we be worried that we might occasionally be picking the ‘wrong’ director, simply because we like the rep? Personally, I think that scenario is unlikely. Creatives have so much riding on every job, that I can’t see any of us being influenced to pick one director over another, as payback for a little sofa flirtation-time.

But I think we have to be honest with ourselves and accept that we are more likely to use a director that we know than one we don’t, and that we are more likely to get to know a director through a rep than any other source. So reps do have an influence.

However, it would be hypocritical of us to object to the small amount of hospitality we accept from reps, when we ad agencies ourselves splurge fortunes on entertaining clients. On the other hand there are quite a few creatives who never see reps, not because of any moral qualms, but because they consider it a waste of time. This, in my view, is a mistake.

Yes, it is a bit annoying to be bombarded with phone calls from production companies’ and photographers’ reps. And (in the days before caller ID) it was sometimes embarrassing to have to fend off the bottom-feeder suppliers who desperately wanted to show you their ‘very accomplished’ tabletop guy, or ‘up-and-coming jewellery photographer’.

But no one is forcing you to take every appointment offered. I never take meetings with reps from the marginal companies, because all of the Top 100 directors are with the good and reputable companies. And I’m happy for reps from the reputable production companies to show me their new signings, because otherwise I wouldn’t hear about them.

It’s true that ‘screeners’ do take a small chunk out of your day, but reps can also save you time. They’ve been trained to deliver a neat little précis of what each director is best for, eg “understated humour with subtly dark undertones”; a service which I personally find is a useful short-cut.
And, hey, if the meeting does happen to finish just before lunch….

‘James McNulty’ is a creative at a London advertising agency

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