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

On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Dear Jeremy, Should brands be ashamed or proud to win a place on the Advertising Standards Authority's "most-complained-about ads of the year"?

A: I continue to be mildly surprised by the ignorance of many Campaign readers. The question above is a fine example of one particularly widespread category of ignorance: the apparent belief that there are Good Things that all brands should do and Bad Things that no brands should do.

I must have been asked similar questions about humour, celebrities, slice-of-life, sponsorship and cartoons, to mention only five. And all my answers, depressingly, have said exactly the same thing: it all depends.

All strong brands have a clear position. Brand positions are relative, not absolute; we judge brands by their relationship to other brands.

Brand positions are seldom entirely functional: Bloggs' Beer Makes You Drunker Quicker would be an unusual slogan. We rate brands emotionally and holistically much as we rate people: that's why we talk about brand personality. And brand personalities, like human personalities, are built very largely through association.

Over time, a brand's worth can be greatly enhanced or greatly diminished simply through its associations: both those it chooses and those that are thrust upon it.

The associations that a shrewd brand chooses will be those that are most likely to contribute to its desired brand position. Since this position will, by definition, be different from all other brands, it follows with a plodding inevitability that the associations most apposite for Brand A will be inapposite for Brands B, C, D and so on. And, indeed, vice-versa. Once you know where you want your brand to be, or stay, you'll have a much better idea of the potential value of humour, celebrities, slice-of-life, sponsorship or cartoons, to mention only five. It all depends.

For a cheeky, challenger, irreverent, anti-establishment brand, getting a place on the ASA's "most-complained-about ads of the year" list would probably do more good than harm: at least for a year or two. For John Lewis or Pampers to find themselves in such company would be unfortunate.

I sometimes think of giving my tediously repetitive answers code numbers and post them on my website. So that the next time I'm asked "Should brands sign up Andy Murray?", I can simply say: See G19.

Q: Dear Jeremy, I am in talks with colleagues about launching an integrated agency in London. There has obviously been a new wave of start-ups recently, which in one way is good as it shows there's still a buyout market for new agencies. But I worry now that the market may be over-saturated. What do you think?

A: The ad agency market has been over-saturated since 1865. No advertiser has ever complained of having too limited a choice. This unusual circumstance is almost entirely a by-product of the advertising profession not being a profession. We go on calling ourselves a profession because it sounds more respectable than the alternatives. Proper professions demand that, before they can practise, potential practitioners need to have acquired formal, professionally agreed, qualifications. In theory, this protects clients from unscrupulous mountebanks. In reality, it allows the professions to regulate numbers and charge reasonable fees without actually conspiring.

You don't even need an O Level to start an advertising agency. Plumbers need more qualifications than practitioners in advertising do. Barriers to entry are negligible, just about anyone can join in, and the agency market will always be over-supplied and under-funded.

So you shouldn't waste any more time fretting about the state of the market: it's irrelevant. Agencies don't flourish or fail because of market movements; they flourish or fail (or struggle gamely on) according to their own perceived achievements - or lack thereof.

Not everyone wins. The trade press is understandably reluctant to chronicle agency deaths. The waters close mercifully quickly. But you might find that a quick check on the recently departed, say over just the past ten years, would be a salutary corrective to any irrational exuberance.

If you and your colleagues are unusually talented, with unusual drive and unusually good contacts and reputations, it doesn't matter when you choose to go. Because we're not a stuffy, regulated profession, real merit gets recognised remarkably quickly; we're a trade that constantly refreshes itself to the greater good of all.

"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.