A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch: what's the most dangerous misconception about advertising?

Dear Jeremy, What is the most damaging misconception that those in the industry have about advertising?

I used to think it was about the importance of creative awards.

When I started out as a copywriter, there were no awards to be distracted by. 

An early assignment was Phensic. "Secrets of the ‘pain threshold’: aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine are better for headaches than aspirin alone!" Illustrated by a line drawing of a cerebellum lifted from a medical textbook.

After six months, the account executive bounded into my office in a state of some excitement: "Let’s go and have a drink! We’re 0.8 per cent up on Nielsen!" 

I was extremely hazy about the whole concept of percentages and had never heard of Nielsen but suspected from his manner that something good had happened. So we went and had a drink and then another and, from that moment on, I knew what advertising was for.

Some time later, the leading trade paper of its day, The World’s Press News, awarded me a Silver Quill for an ad for Parker – but nobody at the agency mentioned it and I don’t think we ever bothered to tell the client. It might have seemed that we were more interested in winning publicity for ourselves than selling pens.

So it’s only relatively recently (by which I mean the past 50 years) that creative awards have become so important. Clients expect them, creative directors are hired specifically to acquire them and financial analysts assess the relative market value of holding companies on their agencies’ success in winning them. 

It was potentially the most damaging misconception that people in the advertising industry can have about advertising – and it was saved from being disastrous only by the almost fortuitous fact that, most of the time, work that wins gongs is also good for brands. 

But not, please note, because it sells; or, anyway, not in the sense that off-the-page or online one-click advertising sells. What most award-winning advertising does is exactly what established, repeat-purchase brands most need and for which we still have no universally agreed name. 

We favour "brand-building" because at least it sounds as if we’re making some sort of progress. But, most of the time, the right sort of advertising simply performs a topping-up function: refreshing brand values, some say; maintaining salience, others say. Brands need continual sustenance, continual nourishment if – in the teeth of relentless competition – they are to remain front-of-mind and wantable. 

So what much of the best advertising does is not to directly effect a sale: it enhances saleability. Which is an even more valuable function because sale-ability protects long-term profit. 

And I’ve come to believe that, over many years, untutored advertising practitioners intuitively fumbled their way to this understanding quite a long time before the theoreticians were able to post-rationalise it. 

Do you think having two chief executives will become more common at agencies given how wide the scope of work is becoming?
Harry S Truman didn’t invent it but he was the first president to display it in his office: "The buck stops here."

What would such a sign say, do you suppose, if there were two presidents? 

"Please note: on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the buck stops over there."

If one inadequate chief executive can’t cope with everything, don’t take on a second inadequate chief executive. Start again with one good one.

I couldn’t believe it when I read that Domino’s wants to launch a restaurant on the moon, at a cost of £13.4 billion. Surely it’s a bit of a waste of marketing spend, considering the audience will be few and far between?
Very shrewd of you to have spotted that. Why don’t you point it out to Domino’s itself? It’s not every day that a member of the public saves a company £13.4 billion. Even 1 per cent as a thank you would be quite agreeable.

Dear Jeremy, When a big agency buys a small one for a lot of money and merges the two, is it a sign that something wasn’t quite right at the big agency?