On the Campaign couch
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

The group account director on the piece of business on which I’m the account planner says that ‘the only good planner is one who’s on the road’ and berates our chief executive for giving way to the client who refuses to let me do the groups and insists on hiring a third-party research company. How did JWT and BMP get away with their planners being the judge and jury on their campaigns?

Job titles suffer from the effects of inflation as certainly as money does. It used to be enough to be a managing director; now even quite small companies may have at least two, both of whom are hoping to be chief executives. The copy chief becomes the creative director who becomes the executive creative director. The role remains exactly the same but its holders need ever-more sonorous appellations.

What this slow process reveals is a gradual erosion of faith in the credibility of individuals in authority.

Managing directors are seen to be fallible? No problem: just call them chief executives and power is instantly restored. At least for the time being.

From the beginning of time, advertising agencies have found it difficult to convince their clients that their advice is dispassionate and objective. Given that agencies depend for their existence on their clients’ spending money on advertising, client scepticism is hardly surprising and was largely responsible for the disappearance of the commission system. This was a pity because, a bit like constitutional monarchies, the commission system was both broadly benign and impossible to justify. But the end of the commission system didn’t immediately restore clients’ faith in the integrity of their agencies’ advice. There remained the suspicion that an agency, while sharing no risk, might be using its clients’ money to pursue not so much brand growth as silverware.

The invention of the account planner in the 60s caused a brief pause in this steady attrition of trust. Clients knew they couldn’t believe their account executives, let alone those creative Johnnies, but here was a new and noble person: embodying purity and detachment, above the fray, incapable of fudge, intellectually incorruptible, the keeper of the flame. And, above all, because new, untainted. Those who first thought to call account planners the Voice of the Consumer were on to a good thing. It was a brilliant piece of brand positioning.

But that was then. For account planners to have maintained that reputation for objectivity, they would have had to routinely and publicly dissociate themselves from the fevered enthusiasms of their creative director and register a no-confidence vote at the end of an otherwise compelling new-business pitch. They didn’t.

I’m not saying that account planners have become corrupt; just that, as with politicians, a reputation for total detachment demands occasional evidence of divergence from the party line. That’s never going to happen and nor should it. Even account planners aren’t always right; all agency recommendations are hypotheses; and clients have every right to expect them to be presented by a group of disparate people united by optimism.

That’s why your client refuses to let you do the groups and, instead, insists on hiring a third-party research company. Their methodology may be suspect, but not their motives.

My new-business director says we need to get into legal highs if we want to get to the movers and shakers in marketing. You were around when cannabis was the drug of choice and you’ve observed the great ads produced when speed, LSD, ecstasy, cocaine and ket had their day, so what’s the downside?

I’m sorry to disappoint you. If I was, indeed, around when great ads were being produced under the influence of cannabis, speed, cocaine and so on, it all passed me by. After my time, perhaps: most things were. But I do remember client lunches at the Connaught when, after a gin and tonic or two and a decent bottle of claret, the sommelier would trundle round with a massive liqueur trolley. Come to think of it, though, the great ads were mainly produced between ten o’clock and 11.30 when the Coach & Horses opened. The Connaught contingent didn’t write them; they just sold them in the afternoon.

"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, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE