On the Campaign Couch ... with JB
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: I'm an agency boss keen to develop new thinking and am more than a little hacked off with the stream of interns that are churning through the agency.

Given that most of them are relations of agency staff, they tend to think in the same way. How can I access a more diverse range of young talent?

A: This is an extremely interesting question - and one that needs to be asked even when not prompted by an infestation of interns.

Even a casual study of British advertisements reveals a dismal truth. The overwhelming majority have been conceived and written by people whose only interest is advertisements.

Sixty years ago, James Webb Young wrote: "Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested - from, say, Egyptian burial customs to modern art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.

"Now this gathering of general materials is important because this is where the previously stated principle comes in - namely, that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of elements. In advertising, an idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge about life and events."

It's widely held that, in our bad old dilettante days, every copywriter had a half-written novel hidden away in a desk drawer and art directors were members of the Royal Water Colour Society. The implicit conclusion is both clear and condescending: thank heavens that those amateur days are long since past; today, we hire only professionals.

Today, we hire young creative people because they already have a book. They've been taught how to create advertisements from a study of existing advertisements.

We rarely ask them what they know about Egyptian burial customs - and they'd look at us strangely if we did.

A fascination and acquaintance with "general knowledge about life and events" should be as necessary an ingredient in a creative recruit as native talent. If they were obsessive about the Republican Party or the paranormal, it wouldn't bother me a bit if they'd never heard of Bill Bernbach: there's time for all that later.

It seems clear to me that the amateurs of the underrated past were far more likely to think originally and unconventionally than the narrowly educated professionals of today.

Chris Wilkins was, and is, an outstanding copywriter. How many of today's top copywriters could have written The Horizontal Instrument? Grief and watchmaking - both subjects deeply understood and woven into an elegant narrative that manages to both move and enlighten.

So to return to your question: stop hiring people who've wanted to be in advertising since they were 13. Hire interesting people with multiple interests who know how to think. Then let them.

A Technique For Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. Crain Communications.

The Horizontal Instrument by Christopher Wilkins. Anchor Books.

Q: Dear Jeremy, I've just been promoted to chief executive at an ad agency and I've heard rumours about the creative ideas behind some of our work for a telecoms brand not being particularly original. What do you think I should do about it? Thanks.

A: I've been brooding recently about that interesting phrase: "inspired by ... "

Judicious use of "inspired by" is evidence of admirable openness while clearly limiting your debt to the original.

To volunteer that you've been inspired by something means that you can never be accused of deceit or plagiarism. Because you've come clean, nobody can flush out that footage on YouTube to embarrass you.

"Inspired by" makes it absolutely clear that the original was no more than a starting point and it was only your own inspiration that transmuted it into the gold it now is.

And I may be wrong about this, but I suspect most lawyers would tell you that to allow openly that you were inspired by something implies and concedes no appropriation of another's intellectual property.

When you conduct your ruthless investigation into these malicious rumours, you may find the above reflections of some value. Please don't be tempted to post-date any e-mails, however; that would be deeply dishonest - and, even worse, counter-productive.

"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