Meg Carter sees how one advertising agency is attempting to educate its clients
Advertising agencies have long been viewed by their clients with a mixture of wariness and envy. Fat pay cheques and fast cars remain an enduring image despite the sobering effects of recession. But things have changed. Having shed around 25 per cent of their workforce over the past five years, British advertising agencies are turning to training: not just for their own staff but for their clients as well.

Role reversal has become a novel way of educating advertisers in the advertising agency's darkest arts. While still limited to the largest agencies, a growing number are considering the benefits of "job swap" training with their clients.

Lowe Howard-Spink, the ad agency behind campaigns for Smirnoff, Tesco and Weetabix, is investing heavily in training. Its managing director, Tim Lindsay, said the agency now spends 2 per cent of the cost of its payroll on training for its 250 staff.

"It's been clear for a number of years that agencies are not training people properly across all disciplines, but in particular where agency personnel meet and deal with clients," he said. "For too long there has been an assumption that people's skills will develop along the way." And this applies to many advertisers as well, which is why LHS last month staged its first role reversal course. It involved 19 managers from more than 15 advertisers.

The two-and-a-half-day residential course took place at a country hotel near Reading, Berkshire. Participants from a diverse range of companies including Tesco, Scottish Amicable, Weetabix and Vauxhall become "agencies". Their task was to plan and to create an entire campaign within 48 hours, culminating in a pitch for the pounds 5m advertising business for a fictitious product launch.

"The emphasis is on the practical," said Kevin Duncan, LHS head of account management, who is responsible for training.

Advertisers were divided into groups of five or six. Their first job was to create a brief to advertise "a Magnum-style icecream bar with real fruit and only 80 calories". Briefs were then swapped and each group became an "agency", with members adopting the roles of account manager, planner, media planner and creative team. Fourteen senior LHS personnel also participated as advisers and instructors. At each stage, management, media, planning, research and evaluation advice was given.

The agencies' first task was to interpret the brief. "These were of decidedly mixed quality," Mr Duncan said. "Clear briefs elicit no questions. Poor briefs generate many - and few answers." They then had to decide their strategy. They were given market and media data, though some of this was erroneous, "to illustrate how a good brand manager sifts information advance", he explained.

The next step was to develop a creative approach. Further advice was given on how to evaluate ideas by an external trainer, Johnny Wright, a former ad agency boss who now runs his own training company and works regularly with LHS. "It was important not to give just the LHS line," Mr Duncan said. "To work, this sort of exercise cannot be an evangelical selling tool."

By the end of the first full day the agencies were expected to be in a position to test their ideas with research groups made up of members of the public. Again, agency personnel were on hand to guide planners on how best to moderate and extract information from these potential consumers. Video equipment was also available to shoot footage for the next day's final presentation.

Interpreting the results of qualitative research is critical, Mr Duncan said. "People wilfully interpret research findings to post-rationalise their ideas." The involvement of members of the public added a note of realism. "In an extreme case, research groups can hate the product and the advertising strategy and suggest no alternative," he said. "It's 9pm on the night before the pitch - and you're in trouble."

The final day began with a discussion on how to create effective advertising - the only piece of LHS propaganda, Mr Duncan said. "Too much advertising assumes that advertising is received passively. It is not. The only way to ensure your ad registers with the Nineties consumer is if people like it." After a couple of hours to fine tune their work, each agency presented their campaign to a panel of LHS executives.

Advertisers participating in the course were surprised at pressures they encountered. "While I have to write briefs for campaigns, I'd never fully appreciated just how they would be used and the implications they would have," said one.

Phil Smith, a marketing manager for Tesco, said: "How to write an effective brief is a key issue." As is efficient communication with an agency. "There is a belief that there is little point in developing a close relationship with an agency - they might not be there tomorrow," he added. "But the longer relationship you can develop, the better." LHS hopes the job swap will be a twice-yearly fixture in its training calendar.