On the Campaign Couch
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign Couch

We are hosting a "behind the scenes in advertising" career day for 20 students later this month. It has taken quite a bit of time and organisation at our end: we have three senior agency bods (including myself) writing presentations, finding briefs for them to do work on and getting people in to listen to their ideas and give them feedback. It should be a really good day for them.

At the end of last week, the woman organising the students sent me an e-mail in which she said that she was double-checking that we had arranged to give goody bags to all the students at the end of the day. We hadn’t. And the more that I thought about it, the more irritated I became. Was this a five-year-old’s birthday party or a career day? Did they really need going-home presents? Should I be wrapping cake in a napkin for them too? So I e-mailed her and said that we really didn’t have much to hand that we could give them, and that I hoped that the day itself would be the "goody", to which she replied straight away: "The goody bags are THE hot topic when the students come back to school – I do hate to disappoint them and they are from disadvantaged backgrounds, you know."

Help. For me, it has sort of become a point of principle that I don’t rush around sourcing goody bags for them, but maybe I am the one being childish about it. What do you think?

I’d be irritated too; because what this emphasis on the goody bags reveals is how the organising woman (and through her, the students) see this occasion. They see it not as a serious career day, one that could open their eyes and their interests to an absorbing future career, but as a jolly; one that could just as easily entail a visit to the London Dungeons or the Mars factory. So I don’t think you’re being childish in finding her demands objectionable; she demeans the serious (and time-consuming) preparation work that you and your colleagues are putting in. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was all a bit of a waste of time.

Here’s a compromise thought. Think of their goody bags not as all-purpose going-home presents but as modest-but-intriguing reminders of the day they spent with you and the sort of work they encountered. So a can of pineapple if they worked on a canned pineapple account but not if they didn’t. Maybe a DVD of some ads. A copy of Campaign. A further reading/viewing list. A notebook and pencil. Perhaps even a Mad Men reference? You should be able to think of a few other relevant trinkets. Don’t get too ambitious: wit’s a great deal more important than worth.

And don’t give a stuff if the organising woman’s disappointment is all too evident. She’s bloody lucky that you laid on such a thoughtful day for them; and so are they.

Dear Jeremy, I’ve got a bad feeling. Our award-winning, walking-on-water, wowing-the-world agency has produced this year’s Christmas ad, and it’s not anything like as good as the last one. I know this because the new-business people have shifted from sycophancy to sympathy. How can I pre-empt the damp-squib vibe at my next board meeting? Shower them with snowman semiotics? Announce I’ve put the account up for review? Offer my resignation and hope they don’t accept it?

I won’t blame you if you don’t accept this advice: but you’ve got a wonderful opportunity to say to your board what all marketing directors should say to their boards at least once a year.

"May I please have two minutes, chairman, to talk about the nature of advertising? Thank you. I’m about to show you this year’s Christmas commercial. The first thing you’ll note is that it’s not as im­mediately pleasing as last year’s Christmas commercial. As you will see, it’s good. It’s just not as good as last year’s.  

"It’s the product of the same team, including me. It enjoyed the same amount of time, money and painstaking attention. Yet it’s not as good – and I don’t know why. Neither do I know why last year’s commercial was as good as it was. That is the uncomfortable truth about making exceptional advertising – and I’m afraid it always will be.

"Commercially, we have nothing to fear. The ad is on-strategy and has been well-received. It’s seldom publicly ad­mitted but advertising’s most valuable contribution is simply to be there; to be seen at the right time by the right people saying the right things. This commercial will do all those things very comfortably and our seasonal sales will be more than satisfactory. The only thing that’s missing is an element that can be identified only by its absence; and I’m afraid I still don’t know what that is.

"Thank you."

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