A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

Jeremy, what inspired you to go into advertising? And what convinced you to stay in it?

Oh dear. "Inspired" is far too grandiose a word. Having spent a couple of years in the army, two years at university and a year-and-a-bit pretending to farm ducks in Norfolk, I needed a job. Unconfirmed family rumour suggested that my father had once worked in advertising: first at an agency called Greenlys and then at his own – which may or may not have been called Bullmores Ltd.

But since he and my mother had separated when I was about four and he’d died when I was 17, there was no-one about to corroborate or otherwise. The word "advertising", however, may well have been lurking in the furthermost reaches of my mind.

At Oxford, and afterwards, I’d written quite a lot of songs and sketches for what were then called intimate revues. Some of them were performed on the fringe at Edinburgh, then later in a tiny theatre club off the Strand called the Watergate. When BBC Television (just the one channel, remember – and black and white) made a documentary about Oxford, they included material I’d written. Some of it was just about adequate – but was greatly helped by being directed by Ned Sherrin and performed by, among others, a teenage Maggie Smith.

The programme was broadcast in 1954 – the year the Television Bill became law and which opened up the BBC to its first competition since its foundation in 1922. The new channels (to be primly called independent television rather than the distastefully vulgar commercial television) were to be funded entirely by advertising and were due to start transmission in September 1955.

Not many people can have seen the BBC’s documentary about Oxford but one of them was George Butler, then the head of art at J Walter Thompson, London. And George realised that, within a year, the agency would need to be able to write and produce television commercials and that no such expertise was currently to be found in the agency.

It was then that George made the entirely erroneous assumption that was to change my life. He assumed, because the work that I had written and that Ned Sherrin had directed had appeared on television, that we knew about television.

In truth, neither of us knew anything at all about television. A television camera had simply been pointed at some undergraduate trivia being performed, in our absence, live, on a stage; which was then transmitted. But George invited us both to an interview.

By the time that letters had been exchanged and dates confirmed, and I turned up in my best blue suit, George had forgotten why he’d written. As a distinguished member of the Royal Watercolour Society, words were not George’s favoured medium. He spoke very slowly and with pronounced gaps between sentences. Disappointed, as head of art, to discover that I couldn’t draw, he then spent several tortured minutes trying to dissuade me from taking any further interest in a career in advertising. Politely, I chose not to remind him that this had been his idea, not mine: he was a man of great integrity and charm.

The best part of an hour later, as I left George’s office, magnificently overlooking Berkeley Square, he remembered as a bit of an afterthought that the agency also had a copy department (though it was called the editorial and plan department).

"Come to think of it," George mused, "we’ve got something called the copy test. There’d be no harm in your taking it, I don’t suppose…"

So I did. And was offered a job as a trainee copywriter for £10 a week. And Ned got a proper job in television.

That’s how I got there. And the reason I stayed is that, from my first day to my last, I had an absolutely wonderful time. Scared a lot, obviously – never knowing quite enough. The delight in winning and the despair in losing. And the companionship of an ever-changing cast of funny, clever people.

I sometimes wonder what I’d have done if George Butler hadn’t been watching television one night in 1954.

Why aren’t the recent crop of start-ups as successful as previous ones?

They never have been and they never will be. When we think of the past, we edit out the failures; then compare the triumphant survivors with all the current contenders. It’s not a fair fight.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE