Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: As an experienced client, I'm alarmed at how much control consumers now have, and the fact they are more savvy than ever. Just what does it take to achieve successful brand activation these days?

A: I've no idea what brand activation means but since you're an experienced client I assume you're worried about sales. That's what clients are usually worried about. But anyway, let's talk about these consumers who alarm you so. (In the real world, they go by the name of people.)

For at least 50 years, clients (and their agencies) have been expressing dismay at the increasing sophistication of their consumers. Every annual marketing plan since 1954 has noted it.

Interestingly, consumers have recently stopped becoming more sophisticated and have started becoming more savvy: and that's the real giveaway. You should be proud and pleased that our citizens, every year for at least 50 years, have become more and more intelligent and discriminating: but no, you're not.

You clearly think that, whereas it was once possible to gull the lumpen proletariat with bog-standard goods and crass advertisements, marketing is now getting far too difficult. The peasants have taken to education and they've seen right through your wily ways. Help! What to do next? Your board has expressed its deep concern. They want a lot more brand activation.

I hardly know where to start, but why not with that presentation you made to a Marketing Society conference only a few years ago? I know it was written for you but you did read it out very nicely. It was called, if you remember, Lest We Forget: The Consumer Rules, OK? And you were right. Ever since the arrival of disposable income and choice, the aggregate power of the buying public has always been greater than yours; or any other advertiser's for that matter, with the single exception of the Government's. They've always known what you were up to, seen through your offers and personality promotions and scoffed at your coupons and condescensions. Luckily, your competitors were just about as leaden as you so it didn't matter much.

Marketing's no more difficult now than it's ever been. The passive, compliant consumer of those much-mourned days when you were a trainee brand manager was always a myth. Advertising has always been an interactive process. Privately, inside everyone's head, interactivity has always raged: interest, disbelief, comparison, contempt, incredulity, rejection. All that's changed is this: for the very first time in the history of mass communication, those millions of private and individual responses have found a public platform.

You really shouldn't be alarmed by all this: you should be delighted. You just need to make sure that you and your agency are as savvy as your consumers - and just a little bit savvier than your competitors. George Safford Parker once said: "Make something better and people will buy it." Go on - it's worth a try. That's the way to get those brands of yours activated.

Q: Dear Jeremy, my boss has just retired after building a brilliant name for himself within the company - he seems to have achieved the impossible by being both successful and well-liked by most of the people that worked for him. I've just been promoted to take his place, which was great at first, but is starting to turn into a nightmare. Not only do I get "but that's not the way we've always done things" every time I try to change something, I have also recently found out that he is still in touch with my chief executive and has even been asked for his opinion on some of the changes I am trying to instigate. How can I get everyone to move on?

A: On the rash assumption that the changes you want to instigate are well thought-through and likely to be beneficial, here's how to get them smoothly accepted.

Your ex-boss, entirely predictably, is missing his ex-company tremendously; he was once a heroic figure there and now he's following his wife round Waitrose. That's why he's so thrilled when your chief executive rings him up and asks his opinion about your ideas. What would you expect him to say?

Make a date with your ex-boss to have lunch once a month. Never cancel it. Ask his opinion about everything you plan to do. Listen very carefully to what he has to say: some of it will be of priceless value; some you can gently file and forget. You've no need to broadcast any of this; it will be widely known. Your own authority will be enhanced and the changes you make will be warmly welcomed. You really should have thought of all this yourself.

- "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@ haynet.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.

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