On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Dear Jeremy, why do digital agencies exist? When commercial TV started, there wasn't an explosion of new agencies specialising in the impenetrable dark art of making TV ads - all the normal agencies just adapted to the new medium. Why do you think it's been different this time?

A: It's not quite true to say that all the normal agencies just adapted to the new medium. I was there at the time, my boy, and I remember it well. And while there are quite a lot of similarities there are also some marked differences between the two newcomers.

You first need to be reminded that, in 1955, the future success of TV as an advertising medium was by no means universally accepted in a country brought up to believe that broadcasting and the BBC were synonymous. Broadly speaking, those agencies with an American connection had lobbied for its introduction and were optimistic about its future; and those agencies that were primarily British were openly sceptical about its potential. Lord Reith compared the introduction of sponsored TV to the introduction of the Black Death. It was widely held that the British family would never tolerate the invasion of its drawing-rooms by advertisements for haemorrhoid remedies and washing powder.

As a result of this uncertainty, agencies responded in one of two ways. Some, convinced that the medium was destined to prove a flash in the pan and anxious that the real agency shouldn't be contaminated, formed quite separate TV departments - with their own newly hired writers and producers and even, in some cases, their own account management. These departments knew quite a lot about TV as entertainment but very little about brands or advertising; so, broadly speaking, the commercials they produced were highly entertaining but often totally irrelevant. It was the golden age of the jingle - from which the much- maligned jingle has yet to recover.

The other agencies, however, did everything they could to embrace the new medium and expected their existing account groups to master it. These people knew quite a lot about brands and advertising but absolutely nothing about TV; so, broadly speaking, the commercials they produced were doggedly on strategy but deadly dull. It wasn't until the mid-60s, when independent TV was already ten years old, that TV was completely integrated into all agencies.

So you can see that there were indeed some parallels with the advent of the absurdly named digital - but there were also quite a lot of differences.

Television may have been new territory but it was never totally mysterious. We knew what it was called, we were familiar with its programmes, we knew that the uncultured Americans had found it to be an effective advertising medium - and there were some very large American companies operating in Britain. And from the start, TV advertising offered creative people a sexy new canvas to paint on and a seductive whiff of showbiz to go with it: creative teams could now hold casting sessions and go on location shoots, often in the Caribbean because the light was better there.

By contrast, digital wasn't at all sexy. It didn't even have a sensible name - and still doesn't. Opinion remains divided not only about what it's called but also what it is. Is it a medium or is it a technique? And if it's an advertising medium, what sort of advertising does it do? The early manifestations didn't fill existing creative agencies with lustful thoughts. Just a techie version of much- despised classified advertising, really - like putting little display boxes into the Yellow Pages. And absolutely no opportunity for Oscar-winning art directors to win another couple of entries in The Book. Tom Wolfe reminded the world that the internet had yet to make anyone famous. Surely digital would never make brands famous, either? And, my dear, the people! And the jargon!

All new ventures need obsessive enthusiasts, deaf to doubt and utterly convinced that their new obsession will shortly take over the world. They're defined by their language, which they invent as they go along and which serves the additional function of isolating themselves completely from any earlier world. If there were any such obsessives within existing agencies, they were swiftly sidelined. It's clear, in hindsight, that the formation of specialist digital agencies was absolutely inevitable. Whatever it was, clients wanted some - and couldn't get it anywhere else.

As soon as everyone realises that digital is nothing to do with digital and is all about interactivity; and that interactivity allows brands and people to interact as no other medium does, then trad and mod will all re-group under a single roof. Whose roof, however, remains to be determined.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683. Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.