On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Dear Jeremy, our agency entered a piece of creative work we were really proud of into a lot of awards shows last year but we didn't win anything. Does that mean we actually made a stinker of an ad or could there be another explanation?

A: There's at least one other explanation. It's that Great and Obvious Truth About Advertising that Everyone in Advertising Chooses Not to Recognise. And this is it:

The most important decision an advertiser makes is the decision to advertise: not how, but whether. As long as they meet two basic requirements, all advertisements have a value.

The requirements are these: they must clearly identify the advertised product or service; and they must appear in a medium that reaches the defined audience.

You don't have to be a creative genius or an MBA to deliver both.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned content.

That's because content - creativity, persuasiveness, originality (and here comes the heresy) - is not a basic requirement.

It's greatly to be hoped for, must relentlessly be sought, and when found can transform an advertiser's return on investment. But a billboard that simply carries the name of the brand - with absolutely no attempt to add promise - is already doing what advertising does best.

Long before they need deft positioning or unique propositions, brands need to become familiar and to earn trust. The very act of advertising - as long as the name is registered and the medium well-chosen - achieves both these primitive aims. Nothing needs to be explicitly claimed; it's clear to the simplest mind that an advertiser happy to put his name on the pack and spend money on its promotion is also entirely happy to be judged on the quality of his merchandise.

Understandably, advertising agencies never bother to disinter this great truth.

They compete at the margins. They concentrate on the importance of content, because that's where their competitive abilities lie, that's where they can make a difference; and in doing so, they neglect advertising's fundamental value.

But if the only advertising that paid its way was the advertising that won awards, the world's total annual advertising expenditure figure would be twelve pounds nine and sixpence.

You didn't make a stinker. You almost certainly made a piece of advertising that served your client well. It almost certainly served your client at least as well as a great many award-winners and much better than some. Please remind your people what they're paid to do. If they think they're paid to win awards, they don't deserve to be paid.

Q: Can creatives make good planners? And vice versa?

A: All the best creatives are already planners - and always have been.

Try this simple test. Put a pot of paint in front of a creative team and, with no further information, instruct them to write an ad about it.

The very people who've forever squealed about the stifling effect of formal briefs will soon be asking indignant questions: "What d'yer mean, just write an ad? What's it made of, why's it different, what's it best at, who's the enemy, what's it cost, what's its history, who uses it, where do they get it, how many colours does it have ...?"

You can't be a class creative unless you're an instinctive planner.

There are some creatives, often with high, if fragile, reputations, who identify an idea (or more usually a technique) and apply it arbitrarily to the next brief that comes their way. Sometimes it works; but if it does, it's sheer chance. This is Outside In Thinking. The only creativity that deserves to be called great is Inside Out Thinking - even if the logic is apparent only after the initial inspiration. Retrospective sense-making is entirely respectable. Inside Out Thinking demands planning.

But in the history of advertising - and, indeed, in the history of the arts and the sciences - there's never yet been an instance of an individual not only capable of giving birth to an original idea but also of being entirely dispassionate about its merits.

If excellent planners started being creative, they'd stop being excellent planners.

Q: I work in the buying team at a media agency and, with the summer almost here, I'm keen to make sure I get as many freebies as possible. Do you think it would be wrong of me to see if the planner on my accounts will let me buy more radio so I can be sure of getting tickets to all the festivals?

A: Yes.

- "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, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.