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

On The Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: What are your memories of Mad Men-era 60s advertising? Was the ad agency world as fun and crazy as it sounds?

A: The truth is always untidy, but untidy history is hard to grasp.

So historians invent and christen periods, ages, eras, categories and boxes into which the sprawling truth is roughly bundled. It makes broad-brush sense but buries reality.

Prompted by Mad Men and confirmed by the many attendant books, the history of advertising since World War II is already almost beyond exhumation.

I've written elsewhere about one New York ad agency of the early 60s. It accepted, on principle, no tobacco or liquor accounts. It declined, on principle, to do speculative creative work. It employed many women, because women made excellent copywriters. They sat in a women-only designated area and wore hats. Better than men, they understood what it was like to manage the meagre household budget, to patch and clean the kids' clothes and to do the daily school run. They welcomed market research because it helped them plan a destination and find out later if they'd reached it. None of this advertising condescended and much of it made mainstream brands into valued and familiar friends. This was advertising that mastered that most admirable and least lauded of advertising forms, and what the first Mr Heinz called: "Doing the common thing uncommonly well."

The offices themselves were quite austere. No liquor was consumed on the premises. There was no creative director because there was no creative department: there was an editorial department and an art department and a television production department. Members of the marketing department prepared their clients' annual marketing plans. Account executives were called representatives because their job was to represent the client to the agency and the agency to the client. No major recommendation was submitted to a client until it had been subjected to, and satisfied, the ruthless interrogation of a top management review board.

People much enjoyed working there.

Applications to join exceeded vacancies by 100:1. It was America's (and the world's) most successful ad agency. And it was not alone. In Chicago, Leo Burnett was doing it at least as well and often better. And so were hundreds of other agencies across the US.

They remain an important part of the untidy truth. It would be a pity if they were to be forgotten.

Q: I'm a chief executive at a sizeable ad agency that seems to have an image problem. We lost a few clients recently and people think we are in dire straits financially and about to tank, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Financially, we are a lot more sound than some shops that, on the surface, seem to be in better shape. We've got a couple of new wins under our belt now and things seem to be shaping up, but our image is still tarnished. Short of forking out for a souped-up PR operation, how do I change this?

A: A prospective client comes in for an initial chat. He's losing market share. You've asked around, scoured the net and done a bit of original research, and it's perfectly clear what his problem is. His product's no good. It was OK 25 years ago, but it isn't now.

You'd like the business. So do you tell him to go away and not come back until he's fixed his product? Or do you tell him he's got an image problem and that you're uniquely qualified to fix it?

A fancier name for an image problem is reputational deficiency. Like vitamin deficiency, it can be easily treated. Nothing to do with the intrinsic stuff, you understand: no need to reformulate or anything expensive like that. This agency can give you a course of treatment that will speedily restore your brand to the heights of respect that its quality inherently warrants.

It's not very noble misleading clients in this way - though you probably manage to convince yourself of its truth. But to mislead yourself, about your own brand, of which you are the chief executive, is beyond derision.

The main cause of reputational deficiency is product deficiency. Your agency has an image problem because you haven't done enough good work.

Fork out on a souped-up PR operation and the entire village will chuckle: "Old Charlie must be desperate. I see he's forking out on a souped-up PR operation."

If you think I'm wrong, stage a display of all your current work (not just those seven succulent jobs) and hold an open day. If your image soars, you'll have solved your problem. If it doesn't, at least you'll know what your problem is.

"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.