On the Campaign couch
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

Of all the many famous quotes about advertising, which is your favourite and why?

"Advertising’s worth doing when you’ve got something worth advertising." Its source is uncertain, but it’s usually attributed to the late Dave Flower. It may sound a bit glib but it’s worth examination. A brief history of the rollercoaster reputation of advertising over the past 100 years or so may cast a little useful light.

For the first half of the last century, there were quite a few manufacturers, a great many retailers and just about all providers of professional services who believed (or claimed to believe) that "good wine needs no bush". This ancient proverb, itself about 500 years old, referred to the custom of innkeepers hanging a bit of greenery over their doors to advertise the availability of drink therein. It summed up the comfortable belief that quality spoke for itself: that a good enough product would automatically generate all the word-of-mouth endorsement that it needed for growth and profit.

A few hundred years later, Ralph Waldo Emerson allegedly confirmed this conviction by claiming that, if a man invented a better mousetrap, the world would beat a path through the woods to find it. (I say "allegedly" out of consideration to Emerson. As a moment’s thought makes clear, it’s manifest rubbish and, luckily for him, there’s no evidence he ever said it.)

The effect of this convenient belief was twofold – and set an understanding of advertising’s role and value back by several generations. First, it provided traders with an apparently unassailable reason to abstain from using advertising (which they understandably saw as an additional cost) when they might have greatly benefited from doing so; and second, it led to yet another false belief. If it was indeed true that high-quality offerings spoke for themselves and had no need to advertise, then it surely followed that any product or service that did make use of advertising was in effect declaring itself of lower quality.

Younger readers may find this hard to credit but, as late as the 60s, there were directors of consumer goods companies who felt that to advertise at all was a public admission of product deficiency: "I’m proud to say that, here at Brotherton and Widshaw’s, we’ve never felt the need to advertise. And I can tell you straight, young man, we don’t intend to start now."

There followed yet another swerve from sanity. Despite the lingering myth, it eventually became clear that companies that advertised regularly outperformed companies that didn’t; so when the relatively new discipline of marketing began to take hold, and people called marketing directors were appointed, advertising vaulted from being a grudgingly undertaken activity to the new magic ingredient.

So fervent were the new advertising evangelists that they overcompensated. They became such ardent believers in the power of advertising that they began to neglect the fundamental necessity of R&D. So determined were they to sell the sizzle, not the steak, that they forgot about the steak altogether. After all, it was much more fun getting fancy stuff out of advertising agencies than cajoling reluctant chemists and engineers into making things work better. And, for a little while, they got away with it. But when their users discovered, as was bound to happen, that their favourite product had become so proud of becoming a brand that it had forgotten how to be a good product, their disillusionment turned them swiftly into deserters.

So when Flower said "Advertising’s worth doing when you’ve got something worth advertising", he was distilling a hundred years of empirically obtained experience. Neither product nor profile is enough on its own; but product must always come first.

I’ve been asked to combine my role of executive creative director of a large agency with the chairmanship. What would you advise?

There are people who want titles because they want titles. And there are people who want titles because titles will help them do important and difficult things. If you belong to the first category, snap it up: you still won’t be overstretched. But if you belong to the second category, run a mile. Within a week, you’d not only be doing two jobs badly; you’d also be preventing others from doing them.

"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