CLOSE-UP: ON THE CAMPAIGN COUCH ... WITH JB

Q: Leo Poloniecki of KLP writes: In last Saturday's Telegraph Magazine, an ex- M&C Saatchi-er said: "A lot of conceptual art went wrong by reducing the 'idea' to mere gimmickry, like advertising - something superficial and not particularly clever." Do you agree with this?

A: Dear Leo, thank you for your kind enquiry. Although I've absolutely no idea what this person is going on about, I strongly disagree with it.

All attempts to relate advertising to art are misguided. Advertising's only legitimate justification is its primary purpose: to affect behaviour.

Art may move, entrance, enlighten or reward - but it will never be evaluated by its effect on behaviour. Advertising should be evaluated by nothing else.

It is certainly true that much advertising is superficial and not particularly clever; but what's wrong with that? Advertising exists not to be admired for itself but to cause us to admire its subject matter.

I've found very little conceptual art moving, entrancing, enlightening or rewarding. Come to think of it, though, it has sometimes tempted me to contemplate violence.

Q: I'm a board account director on a piece of major business for a large London agency. I recently discovered that my client has been meeting with other agencies asking them for ideas. I confronted him with this and he assured me they were only meetings, and he had no intention to review. I don't trust him as far as I could throw him. Is there anything I can do to save the business?

A: Probably not. But first, you should reflect on the ultimate agency irony; and I suggest that you start with a little self-examination.

How many times, when presenting your agency's credentials, have you sexed up case histories? How many times have you talked prospective clients through the astonishing story of Burgrips - a company that came to you after 12 consecutive years of market share decline; made no change to distribution, pricing, packaging or product formulation; pegged its marketing budget to the previous year's level; and then, within 22 months, had leapfrogged four competitors to become national brand-leader. And what, you ask your mesmerised prospect, was the only variable? Yes, yes, YES! - it was your fantastic, inspired, mould-breaking, off-the-wall advertising campaign featuring Felicity the Funky Foghorn.

Every agency has its own sexed-up Felicity story: sometimes two or three. Occasionally the stories are nearly true. Marketing directors, responsibly keeping in touch with the agency scene, are exposed to several such stories every month. Imperceptibly, their capacity for scepticism is eroded.

So when your client discovers he's in his third consecutive year of market share decline, he knows it's nothing whatever to do with product formulation, packaging, pricing or distribution. He knows, because he's been told so a hundred times (not least by you, remember, when you won the business originally?), that all he needs is a fantastic new advertising idea. And since he can't seem to get it from you ...

There's only one certain way to stop the accelerating churn of advertising accounts and that's for all advertising agencies to begin to tell the truth. This will require an unusual degree of co-operation between agencies - achievable only, I suspect, if the new president of the IPA adds this crusade to his already tightly packed agenda. At the heart of the deal would be a written commitment by every IPA agency, applicable to every credentials presentation and new-business pitch, to minimise advertising's potential contribution to marketplace glory.

Case histories would be chosen to demonstrate the importance of every other ingredient in the marketing mix. The IPA's most prestigious evening would be devoted to the Defectiveness Awards and the subsequent volume of winning submissions would be called ADVERTISING WORKS (but not nearly as well as a lot of other things you should always try first).

It may take a year or two. Meanwhile, you have three weeks to find a Felicity.

- Jeremy Bullmore is a former chairman of J. Walter Thompson and a director of WPP. He also writes a monthly column for Management Today. Address your problems to him at campaign@ haynet.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.

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