On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: A concerned client writes: I've just read the tracking reports for two of my competitors' ad campaigns. Phrases like "low recognition", "poor branding" and "irritating and unpleasant" stick out. It seems good for my business, today. But I can't help feeling it's bad for advertising in the long run. How does this happen? We all spend so much time and money trying to get this stuff right. Where are we still going wrong?

A: I don't know if you read this column in the 11 June edition of Campaign? I was reminding readers of "that Great and Obvious Truth About Advertising that Everyone in Advertising Chooses Not to Recognise".

"The most important decision an advertiser makes is the decision to advertise: not how, but whether. As long as they meet two basic requirements, all advertisements have a value. The requirements are these: they must clearly identify the advertised product or service; and they must appear in a medium that reaches the defined audience. You don't have to be a creative genius or an MBA to deliver both.

"You'll notice that I haven't mentioned content. That's because content - creativity, persuasiveness, originality (and here comes the heresy) - is not a basic requirement. It's greatly to be hoped for, must relentlessly be sought, and when found can transform an advertiser's return-on-investment. But a billboard that simply carries the name of the brand - with absolutely no attempt to add distinctive promise - is already doing what advertising does best."

I know it fights long-held instinct to state that creative content is relatively unimportant. I know that many find it a deeply offensive suggestion, seeing it a surrender of both pride and principle. But let me also remind you of the January 2010 Deutsche Bank investors' note compiled by their Consumer Staples Research team. It's hardly a sensationalist publication, ploddingly entitled European Consumer Staples: The Importance Of A&P. But its findings are remarkable. A detailed analysis of over 30 large European and American consumer staples companies over more than 15 years reveals, among other truths, "that companies that increase A&P to sales ratios deliver sales growth 30 per cent faster than those who do not". The whole report is rock-solid evidence that brands - whimsically categorised on balance sheets as intangible assets - may well account for more than the total market value of a company; and that Advertising and Promotional expenditure is as crucial to the continuing profitability of those brands as capital expenditure is for the maintenance of a company's tangible assets: its plant and machinery.

All this, of course, is excellent news for those of us in the A&P trade. But did you notice something? The DB team measured the relationship of A&P expenditure to profit; it didn't even attempt to measure the value of content. They were right. Of course content matters and of course it can be transformational. But the unromantic truth is this: the amount of money a marketing company spends is far and away more important than how it spends it.

And so, finally, to your question. I've little doubt that the tracking reports for two of your competitors' ad campaigns are accurate. But the relative importance of expenditure over content means that, although outstanding content may occasionally deliver fabulous benefits, sub-standard content rarely carries severe, measurable commercial penalties. If savage penalties were incurred by terrible advertising - if sales and profits plummeted as a direct result of high expenditure on misguided work - we'd all try even harder. (Paradoxically, of course, we'd also become even more risk-averse.)

Great campaigns can send sales graphs soaring. There have been many of them.

Yet very few ill-directed, irritating, boring campaigns can be shown to have had the equivalent negative effect. Exposure carries them through. I find this truth as unappealing as anyone - but simply being there is often enough.

If your two competitors had announced firm plans to cut their A&P expenditures in half, you could confidently look forward to a bonza year. But I'm afraid their feeble executions may not help you at all.

Q: My agency has had very positive feedback from an ad campaign we launched, but we're also getting accused of copying a Brazilian ad that was made five years ago. Fair enough, the ideas are vaguely similar, but none of us has seen this ad before. Should we just let the accusations blow over, or publicly defend ourselves?

A: You can't prove a negative - and, anyway, what's so admirable about ignorance? Ignore the accusations with lofty contempt.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4919.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.