A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

At the recent Account Planning Group conference, one of the speakers said agencies should improve their clients’ products rather than spend their time trying to differentiate parity products to consumers. Is this the end of marketing as we know it?

I missed this contribution; thank you for telling me about it.

The speaker in question may well have had a rather more intelligent point to make than you suggest – but on the assumption that you’ve reported him fairly (only a male planner would advance such a proposal), let me examine it in some detail.

At first glance, he’s got a point. Agencies have become so captivated by the worship of The Brand that they routinely underestimate the importance of The Product. The Sizzle has become so much the focus of attention that The Steak can get forgotten. The agency tour of the factory used to be, if not mandatory, then at the very least commonplace. They nearly always revealed a fact, a snippet of history or a demonstration that would prompt a useful advertising line of thought.

(I remember going to their Isleworth factory and being hypnotised by a handheld Gillette Super Silver blade deftly splitting a human hair. It became an award-winning commercial.)

So if this account planner was recommending agencies to acquaint themselves with every detail of a product before getting down to a communications strategy, then I’m right with him. But – if you report him accurately – he’s saying that the job of an agency is not, as James Webb Young put it 70 years ago, "to add a value not in the product"; but, rather, to make the actual product function better. And that’s just about as silly a suggestion as even the wilder shores of account planning has ever come up with.

The scene: the clinching last ten minutes of a critical credentials presentation. The chief executive rises to his feet: "So, in conclusion, let me tell you why we at GumDropZ differ from every other agency you will have met; and why we are the only agency equipped to serve you for the 21st century. We will not waste your time or insult your intelligence by purporting to differentiate your product through spurious imagery. There is only one reason why your product is currently enjoying disappointing sales. Put very simply, it is not good enough.

"Your product will increase its sales only when it becomes a better product. And, here at GumDropZ, we can tell you how to make it better."

In how many agencies will you find people who know more about escape wheels than Rolex, more about surfactants than Procter & Gamble, more about fuel-injection systems than Volkswagen, more about pot stills than Diageo, more about opioid analgesics than GlaxoSmithKline or more about probability mathematics than Legal & General?

Those who make excellent watches, detergents, cars, whisky, painkillers and pension schemes deserve to be understood and honoured. And the best way to honour them is to present their products as beguilingly as possible to their ultimate users. That’s what agencies are for.

My agency is thinking of pitching for a payday loan company but, morally, I think it would be a bad move. Where do you stand? Do you agree with Tim Bell that morals are for priests?

To believe that some advertising agencies have higher moral standards than some priests is, I’m sorry to say, no longer an absurdity bordering on profanity. But, in your case, I’m not sure that morality need come into it. My guess is that you and much of your agency would simply feel deeply uncomfortable if you took it on. That’s enough, surely?

I’m getting married and have asked my assistant to arrange most of it. Is this bad form?

I started by thinking that you must be a man. And then I thought there are some women who seem to believe that they’ll be taken seriously only if they behave as badly as men. Whichever, you’re not only displaying seriously bad manners by deputing your assistant to arrange your marriage but you’re also compounding your boorishness by asking a columnist whether or not you’re being boorish.

Your behaviour is excusable only if you’re marrying your assistant.

‘Ask Jeremy’, a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE

Topics