On the Campaign couch
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

I'm thinking of entering the new Winston Fletcher Short Story Prize, a competition to encourage writers to pen a short story set in the world of advertising.

The problem is I'm lacking inspiration. Could you draw my attention to any great, or even not-so-great, representations of advertising in novels or short stories? This might just set my creative juices flowing.

Here are a few.

Murder Must Advertise, a Lord Peter Wimsey detective story by Dorothy L Sayers (who once worked as a copywriter at SH Benson). Aurora Dawn, the first book by Herman Wouk (who went on to write The Caine Mutiny and other excellent novels). Both are more than 50 years old, but they are well enough written to be a pleasure to read even now.

Skipping to 1954, there’s The Agency Game by Bernard Gutteridge. It was based undisguisedly on his then agency, Colman Prentis & Varley (which later begat Collett Dickenson Pearce). It’s a very funny book. Bernard’s second novel was called Nibbled To Death By Ducks, but the title was the only bit of it he actually got around to writing. After ten years, his publisher finally gave up enquiring after it, but I don’t think he ever got his advance back.

John Bowen, far better known as a playwright and novelist, was briefly a creative director at Garland Compton before it was swallowed up by Saatchi & Saatchi. His Storyboard was published in 1960 and uses an agency background to cast a speculative eye on what wasn’t then known as corporate responsibility.

Then, exactly 60 years after the Sayers, came Matt Beaumont with E: A Novel. Told entirely in the form of an agency’s internal e-mails, it’s brilliant. Because of its form, the reader is left to infer just about everything about the characters – which, thanks to Beaumont’s skill, is both extremely easy and hugely pleasurable. This, too, is a very funny book – and a perceptive one as well.

When Stephen King was last in hospital, I sent him three books.

Two of them, Scoop and Lucky Jim, I knew he already loved. The third was E. He read it with delight and didn’t think it at all out of place in such rarefied company.

If all the books on this patchy and idiosyncratic list suggest a common lesson, it’s that advertising and advertising agencies are more useful as background than central subject matter. If Mad Men had been about advertising, it would never have been recommissioned. You may find this thought helpful.

I hope this encourages you to have a shot at the Winston Fletcher Prize. He’d love the idea and must be extremely cross that he’s not in a position to judge it.

A friend of mine is very competitive in all respects, including conversationally. If, by some chance, I manage to get a word in edgeways, he jumps in and switches the subject back on to himself. If I manage to complete an anecdote uninterrupted, he always tries to cap it with one of his own. I’ve thought of tape-recording our next (one-way) conversation and playing it back to him – do you think this will have the desired effect?

He’d be flattered to death; overcome with rapture that you thought his conversation precious enough to preserve for posterity.

He’d plead with you for a copy to give to his family – and another for himself when driving alone.

This is a friend of yours?

What’s the best thing to tell the troops when you’ve lost a new-business pitch? ‘We came second’ or ‘The winner bought the business’ or ‘We never liked them anyway’ or ‘On to the next one’? My business partner has suggested I say ‘Sorry, it was my fault for contradicting our pitch logic during the Q&A’, but surely this will undermine people’s confidence in me?

It was when your head of planning finished his polished peroration and you said: "I think what Brendan was trying to say is actually not that you should be the challenger brand, as he might inadvertently have implied, but rather that you should pre-empt the generic qualities of the entire market."

That’s when you lost the business and everybody knows it. So there’s no need to tell the troops anything.

"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