On the Campaign couch: Can we go back to the good old days?
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch: Can we go back to the good old days?

Dear Jeremy, Did more clients really see their agencies as business partners (rather than suppliers purchased through procurement) in the good old days?

If so, do you think we can ever get those sort of relationships back?
As I think I may have mentioned before, the commission system was curiously like our system of constitutional monarchy. Despite both being indefensible on just about every level, they both worked astonishingly well. One still does; the other’s gone for good. And because both systems are indefensible, once discarded there’s not the remotest chance of their being reintroduced. That’s why people are so twitchy about Prince Charles. If he starts to impose his views, irrespective of their merit, it will be bonanza day for our republicans. 

Republicans, who have the much stronger case, have been totally muzzled since 1952 – not by any act of censorship but by the iron discipline of our monarch in saying or doing absolutely nothing of political significance for well over 60 years. Just by being there, inoffensively, allowing her subjects to imbue her with whatever qualities they choose, she’s made it impossible for anyone even to question the right of a person to be our head of state simply through the accident of birth; let alone to suggest, however diffidently, that, in the 21st century, mightn’t the populace have a bit of a say in who represents them?

No such protection was afforded the commission system. And if there ever was a time when agencies and their clients enjoyed a warm and trusting relationship, then the commission system can undoubtedly take much of the credit.

Brilliantly, the commission system allowed clients to feel that their advertising agency, alone among their suppliers, cost them nothing. And in a sense, that was true. So when an agency took them out for a rattling good lunch, clients didn’t feel that they were actually paying for it, probably with a bit of a mark-up on top.

And agencies didn’t have to endure the embarrassment of fee negotiations. As long as the client wanted media bought, and the agency bought it on their behalf, the money rolled in. And as clients prospered and new media appeared and more media was bought, then more money rolled in: all seamlessly automatic. Agencies have always found it a little below them to have to mention money – and the commission system allowed them to ignore the distasteful subject. 

Since all agencies cost the same, competition between them couldn’t be based on price. So, secretly made uneasy by their automated income, successful agencies sought ways to alleviate their guilt by competing on service; by providing extra services for clients – either for nothing or at cost. The agency I worked for had a sales conference unit, an experimental film unit, a packaging unit, a merchandising unit, the country’s first qualitative creative research facility, a poster-checking and evaluation service – and two fully-staffed home economics kitchens inventing and testing recipes for food clients. Those were the days when full service meant full service. 

Only on production budgets, on which agencies earned 17.65 per cent commission (don’t ask), did unseemly conversations about money disturb the client/agency relationship. 

An accidental throwback to the time when advertising agencies were agents for media organisations rather than advertisers, for the best part of 100 years the commission system permitted all concerned to ignore a couple of troubling questions: what exactly was it that advertising agencies delivered? And how much was it worth? There was a certain pleasing symmetry in a mysterious and ultimately unmeasurable output being paid for according to an arbitrary calculation unrelated to outcome.

We’re still no nearer to being able to put an accurate price on the work we do. Len Heath, in his mid-fifties, bought an Aston Martin as a result of an advertisement he’d read when he was 14. Until we’ve worked out how to calculate the worth of an artefact that may (or may not) still be delivering value 40 years after its last appearance, we’re going to continue to have unsatisfactory conversations with procurement executives. 

So no: we’re not going to see a return to the good old days. They were made possible only because of an illogical, indefensible and irretrievable payment system.

Let’s hope Prince Charles is listening.