Jeremy Bullmore
Jeremy Bullmore
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the campaign couch ... with JB

Q: I've just started a new job as the marketer of an FMCG brand with a reasonably chunky marketing budget.

My predecessor appointed a new agency just months before he was, ahem, let go. I don't like the agency he appointed, primarily because I can't stand the chief executive, who insulted me rather badly when I was a lowly brand manager at another company. How long should I wait before I call a review and find another agency?

A: Your question brilliantly illustrates why agency cynicism about marketing directors may sometimes be entirely justified. Let me pick it apart, bit by smelly bit.

You're now in sole charge of a reasonably chunky marketing budget with the unilateral right to call an agency review. You're therefore important. When this agency chief executive insulted you, you were a lowly brand manager. Many years, therefore, must have passed between the insult and now; yet you've not only remembered it in vivid detail but allowed it to fester. You're bent on revenge.

You dislike the agency you've inherited not because it has failed to serve your company well but primarily because you can't stand the chief executive.

You ask me, not whether you should call a review, but how long you should wait before doing so. So your mind, such as it is, is already made up. You've chosen to ignore the fact that your company recently spent a lot of money and suffered many months of disruption when conducting the last agency review. With no evidence that it's necessary, personal vindictiveness now drives you to commit your company to another.

I don't have to exercise judgment: from these few facts, it's apparent you're petty, insecure, vain, unprincipled and careless of your company's money and reputation.

You may regret that your company hired this agency. I think it possible that your company will soon feel the same about you. What was it, ahem, that happened to your predecessor?

Q: Is it possible for a start-up advertising agency to have a genuine point of difference? Most of the recent crop appear to be run by very good people saying pretty much the same things.

A: If you give it a moment's thought, you'll realise that no advertising agency, start-up or otherwise, can have a permanent, functional point of difference. At the same time, you will also realise that no two advertising agencies can be identical.

Nothing about the basics of communication has changed since Aristotle. The only things that change are the hardware, not the software. When UK television became open to advertising, certain agencies worked out how to master it more quickly than others; but that point of difference didn't last long. The same is true for the arrival of the internet. Ten years from now, digital expertise will be taken for granted and almost certainly won't be called that.

In 1970, Saatchi & Saatchi announced the arrival of a totally new kind of agency with a full-page advertisement in The Sunday Times. Interestingly, the ad was written not by a Saatchis person but by Robert Heller of Haymarket. I forget why it was a totally new kind of agency but it was something to do with remuneration. Saatchis, like all other new agency brands, soon settled down as a conventional advertising agency. That's nothing to be ashamed of: since the basics of advertising never change, the fundamental role of the agency doesn't change. In the end, all agencies will be rated by their clients on precisely the same single criterion: are they a good advertising agency?

So agencies are much like football clubs. All clubs play the same game. Over the years, they change players, managers, grounds and strip. Yet they remain distinct brands. You don't have to know anything about football (like me) to know that Manchester City and Manchester United are different brands. Nobody wonders if a football club has a genuine point of difference: they're all there to play bloody football. And again like agencies, the single most important factor in any club's reputation is their degree of success: not just this season but over time.

The recent agency start-ups are to be applauded for resisting the temptation to claim spurious points of difference. In the long history of agencies, only one agency has ever managed to hang on to a credible point of difference for more than a week - and that, of course, was Ted Bates. Its USP philosophy was its own USP; and for a year or so, it served it well enough. But points of difference, by definition, are restrictive: which is why only new agencies can pretend to possess them.

"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

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