Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

By Jeremy Bullmore, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 16 October 2009 12:00AM

Q: There's a creative team at our agency that contains one supremely talented individual and one who's average at best, and pretty lazy to top it off.

I've seen teams before fall from grace because one is carrying the other, and I think the talented one in this team knows this as well. I'm sure it's only loyalty stopping him from looking for a change and I'm sure it would benefit him, but is it my place to encourage him to do so?

A: When it comes to creative teams, I'm a strong believer in polygamy. Every creative person should have at least three different partners. They'll kick and scream and some marriages will last and others won't and some will produce wonderful offspring and others will give birth to runts; but they'll all be more versatile, more open-minded and more challenged as a result. So you don't have to be specific in this case; just make it a general rule. If you're right in your diagnosis, the talented one will bless you forever and the lazy one will be terminally exposed.

Q: What's the difference between an insight and an idea?

A: You can spend a million quid on research - but unless it prompts you to do something that you wouldn't otherwise have done that also makes you money, then it's utterly worthless. The word research is pretty passive. The research industry has latched on to the word insight because it implies a return; you're going to get something useful for your money. The trouble is, not all insight managers are managing insights - or even spotting them. Many are simply producing research reports and leaving it to others to sniff out the truffles. People consistently exaggerate the number of toothbrushes they buy every year. Why? Because they know they should be changing them more often. Insight: they don't need convincing, they need prompting. How? That's when you need the idea; but you're already thinking in-store rather than on-box.

Q: Is it time to have another look at advertising on the BBC?

A: The wonderful thing about human behaviour is that it continues to baffle the best of human minds. New "models" are constructed, mostly working backwards from recently observed occurrences. For a year or two they seem attractively tidy and comprehensible; and then, inevitably, a few new occurrences occur that invalidate these new models beyond retrieval.

Rory Sutherland has just sent me a wonderful quotation. It's from some obscure Dr Johnson sermon in which he was having a bit of a go at Adam Smith: "There is a kind of mercantile speculation, which ascribes every action to interest, and considers interest as only another name for pecuniary advantage. But the boundless variety of human affections is not to be thus easily circumscribed. Causes and effects, motives and actions, are complicated and diversified without end."

Nothing tidy here. Just truth. Which is why sensible societies - and businesses and political parties and nations - should never bolt themselves to concrete blocks; to an unshakeable commitment to one tidy and easily comprehensible way of doing things. The best business strategies are no more than working hypotheses, ready to be modified when their imperfections are revealed or when unforeseen opportunities start flashing their lights. Bright companies have alternative hypotheses working in parallel.

Mixed economies work best. You may argue whether total state control is worse or better than unfettered free enterprise. The point is that neither alone will work perfectly for very long. Dr Johnson knew why; because of the boundless variety of human affections. So sensible societies don't apply doctrinaire policies, they conduct ongoing, everlasting, cyclical experiments - and modify accordingly.

There are a great many reasons why the BBC shouldn't take advertising. One deeply parochial reason is that the BBC's freedom from advertising is one of the ad trade's greatest protections. "Nobody", we say smugly, "is forced to watch/listen to ads. They've always got the BBC." Remove that alternative and we're naked.

But an infinitely better reason is that an advertising-free BBC is an ongoing, parallel, competitive working hypothesis. I cannot believe in a world in which all media are "free". There need to be multiple models out there, testing alternative hypotheses and competitive theories - and fumbling their way to an ever-changing but always mixed economy. The internet is making such a fumble ever more urgent. Voluntarily to reduce the number of contestants would be beyond foolish.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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