John Billett Reveals What U.S. Media Taught Him

Dean of British Media Shares Lessons He Learned in Lauded 41-Year Career

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John Billett, former chairman of Billett Consultancy, will leave his post this week. Mr. Billett brought his advertiser-media-services company to the U.S. in 2002. Though it had British pedigree, he was determined that Billetts -- as it is popularly known -- would be a thoroughly American shop. "I was trying to make an American company that chewed gum, that talked about third base, that knew what a first down was," he said.
John Billett
John Billett

Before he jumped on a plane to practice his golf swing in Portugal, Advertising Age caught up with Mr. Billett to find out what he's learned about media planning and buying in America.

Advertsing Age: You've been in the media business for 41 years. You've been a media director, had an independent planning and buying outfit and created Billetts, a marketing-effectiveness company in Europe and an advertiser-media-services company in the U.S. Was there ever a guiding principal?

John Billett: There is one absolutely driving force over 41 years, which is: Answer the question before the client asks it. Usually people believe the client is always right. I don't subscribe to that. But I do subscribe to the fact that we're only here because of the clients. So you have to do everything that you can to destroy internal divisions, internal bureaucracies, private power games. Everything that you do within the organization has got to be pared down so that everybody focuses on answering the clients' questions before they ask them. That I've believed for years and years. It was the passion driving more cost effectiveness in marketing.

AA: Your expertise spans two continents. Is there one market that seems to have it all figured out?

Mr. Billett: I don't think there is one market that stands head and shoulders [above the rest]. It is absolutely the case that one of the reasons for the accelerating performance of digital and internet trading is because it's the commercial communication conduit that's the most measurable. People ask, "Why is the internet moving ahead quickly in some countries?" It is fundamentally because it has measurability right through its core. ... To be fair, many Americans are getting it big time. Many haven't even reached the starting gate. One fact I have used on several occasions: Take a simple thing like network TV and you make comparisons of the prices that people pay for the same spots on the same day. The networks are successfully charging some people $130 and with other people paying $70. When we started in America, we had no idea it was that big of a spread. And that spread is not sustainable. Many advertisers didn't know that was the case.

AA: What are the core lessons you've learned about working in America?

Mr. Billett: There is a division in America -- which I haven't seen elsewhere -- between entrepreneurial, creative, imaginative, not afraid to investigate change, looking for the next opportunity, dynamic and rigorous companies, and the disturbingly large number of companies who aren't that. They seem to be covered in bureaucracy, those who seem to be reluctant to change ... driven by process where everything is taken by committee. If I had one criticism of America, it would be that some decisions take an unseemly amount of time to be made. It is as though Sarbanes-Oxley, Enron, all of this corporate governance, has gripped the flare of certain companies so the prize of getting it wrong is larger than the prize of getting it right.

AA: What's next?

Mr. Billett: There's still something left. ... I would like to perhaps have an association with one of the younger, new-media operations; not because I can show them much about new media, but I can show them a great deal about how to develop a business.
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