Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Should we all stop knocking telly and work to conserve what is, after all, a precious commodity: mass audiences for the moving image?

A: We've been getting television wrong, one way and another, since television began. And one of the main reasons for our getting it wrong continues to be our mindless use of the word television. We use it, unthinkingly, to define three quite separate things: an apparatus; the programmes displayed on the apparatus; and the distribution system that enables the apparatus to display them. So, on the same day, we talk of buying a new television, complain that television is the prime cause of obesity and confidently predict that television's doomed. No wonder we can't think straight. Luckily for an even earlier medium, no such mistake was made. We never confuse films and the cinema. Because we have specific words for each, a temporary dearth of popular films is not seen as evidence of the terminal decline of the cinema medium.

The confusion gets worse. Now that I can download last night's television programme and savour it on my laptop, what am I doing? I'm watching television but not on television and not brought to me by television. Is that still television, I ask myself?

The particular television your question addresses is the original: a public medium, transmitting news, comment and entertainment into people's homes in the expectation that it will be viewed by more than one member of the household simultaneously. The television set became the new fireplace: people gathered round. Furthermore, when Quatermass and the Pit was the only programme being transmitted, people knew what to discuss at the bus stop the following morning. Television programmes challenged the weather as topics you knew to be of universal interest.

It was difficult to conceive of a more desirable advertising medium; and, in its original form, it still is. Because of the water-cooler effect, simultaneous reception is of real value to the audience. It's also of real value to the advertiser. Long before the word viral joined the marketing vocabulary, skilful commercials were remembered and mimicked - and lent saloon bar sultans a sort of surrogate wit.

Tom Wolfe once said that nobody and nothing had ever been made famous solely by the internet. It's no longer quite true; but television programmes and television commercials have made more people and more things more famous more quickly than any other medium ever devised.

The media may fragment but a great many people don't seem to want to. Look at those much maligned US networks: in spite of relentless competition, holding on to an astonishing share of the viewing audience.

So, yes. Sorry to take so long about it. I absolutely agree with you.

Q: I'm a client about to review my advertising account. I've held formal reviews before but have never felt entirely comfortable that the usual pitch process I've followed has resulted in me finding the best agency. If you were me, would you stick with the traditional route or try something new?

A: No, don't try something new. Try something old. It's the pitch process that's new. Advertising agencies have been competing for business for 140 years - and it's only in the last 40 that they've chosen to parade themselves before potential clients in a way apparently calculated to be as remote as possible from reality.

Just jot down a couple of the things you know about working with agencies.

Really good ideas emerge untidily, over time, with quite a bit of mid-wifery from you. Only in retrospect do they seem to have been logically inevitable.

In a pitch, you're presented with a fully formed, highly polished, take-it-or-leave-it proposition to which you've made absolutely no contribution and which you've had no more than 25 minutes to evaluate.

You know from experience that some of the most charming and persuasive agency people you've ever met turn out to be as empty as ashtrays. But not all of them. You also know that some of the least civil and most inarticulate agency people you've ever met turn out to be the brand musicians you've been longing to enlist. But not all of them. Only lengthy exposure reveals which are which. In a pitch, you have two hours.

So go for the old way; go for the deeply despised Old Boy Network. You know them well - so you know which of them are dependable and which of them are dodgy. By the time you've taken a dozen of them out to lunch (one at a time) you'll have a far better idea of the agency you're looking for than after a nine-month, three-stage, five-shortlist pitch. And it's a lot less expensive.

- "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.

Topics