A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Should Campaign scrap its Digital Agency of the Year award now every agency is supposedly "digital"?

Seven years ago, I was asked by an internet conference to predict the future of internet advertising. This is a brutally edited version of what I said:

"In 1955, television was the new medium and there were two schools of thought about it.

Many advertisers and agencies were far from convinced that TV ads would ever catch on. When anyone reminded them that all TV in the United States was successfully funded by advertising, they responded triumphantly: 'Exactly!' It confirmed their view of both TV and America. TV advertising was going to be a flash in the pan: to be greeted warily and then mercifully buried.

The other school of thought knew with evangelical certainty that not only was this new advertising medium bound to be an instant, sure-fire tearaway hit, but it would annihilate all existing advertising media as if by blanket bombing.

That's the problem with new: new things are either self-evident non-starters or they're the answer to everything, to the exclusion of all else.

In 1955, agencies adopted one of two positions. The first was based on the belief that TV was an entertainment medium; it therefore followed that TV advertisements had to be entertaining. Furthermore, nothing that anyone had ever learnt about advertising could possibly be of relevance to this revolutionary new medium.

So rather than trying to teach advertising people how to use TV, these agencies set up totally separate TV departments - with their own writers and producers and art directors. They were entertainers and technologists first - and advertising people only by default and with some reluctance.

Brands that had painstakingly developed clear personalities through their old advertising suddenly appeared on TV wearing an entirely different set of clothes. The nature of the medium was driving the creative content. Technology ruled. Obscure jargon came into being and was joyfully embraced.

When a client objected to the depiction of his pack, he would be told it was the inevitable consequence of spherical aberration.

Humbled, he would retreat to his corner and thereafter remain silent.

Dissolves and dolly shots, married prints and doubleheads, jump cuts and cross cuts: the new language left the advertising establishment bewildered and excluded. Commercials were made simply because they could be made.

These specialist TV departments and the ad agencies that had spawned them looked at each other across a great and growing chasm of mutual incomprehension.

Within this chasm, the new language formed a great barbed-wire fence - frightening the living daylights out of everyday advertising folk and affording the insiders a formidable defence against invasion.

The second group of agencies tried the alternative approach. They decided that the traditional creative people, who knew about consumers and brand positioning, would just have to learn about this new medium whether they liked it or not. Most of them didn't. The barbed-wire fence frightened them to death and they lost their confidence.

So for quite a number of years, the British viewing public was subjected to two categories of TV commercial: the first full of jolly jingles, technical tricks and send-ups of game shows - which had nothing to do with the nature of the brands. And the second, ploddingly unsuccessful attempts to translate respectable print campaigns into film.

Reward without relevance or relevance without reward: you could take your pick.

It was only when the new medium stopped being new that the beginnings of sanity emerged. The barbed-wire fence began to rust and crumble - and more and more creative people tiptoed into the forbidden compound and found, not as they'd expected, Dr Strangelove's laboratory, but a playground. Technologists were returned to their proper place. Talented storytellers from ad agencies found they could tell wonderful stories on television - and it didn't matter at all if they didn't know what spherical aberration meant.

The two agency camps converged - and TV began to occupy a natural place in all their work.

Today (2003), of course, television is middle-aged. Those very agencies that took a little time to master it are now accused of recommending it mindlessly. They are also accused of being slow to recognise the creative potential of the new new media ..."

To answer your question, Campaign can safely scrap its digital discriminator in April 2012.

- "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.