On the Campaign couch
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

We are an independent creative shop currently being circled by potential suitors. Are there any proven benefits to being part of a larger marketing group outside of the financial payouts for those lucky enough to have stakes in the business? (I don’t, unfortunately.)

The main, if not exactly pulse-raising, benefit is stability – or, more accurately, less instability. An independent agency, privately owned, still steered and inspired by its inventors, may enjoy 20 or 30 years of joyous, nerve-wracking adventure, distracted only by its backers and bankers. And maybe, as in your case, by potential suitors. But, of course, if only because of human mortality, it can’t last.

The founders grow old or tired. The second generation of management can never be the same as the first. If the names were over the door in the first place, sooner or later they won’t be greeting you in reception. There has to be some change of ownership. All this creates uncertainty.

It’s a slightly melancholic exercise, but I think I could name 20 London agencies, just from my working lifetime, that set themselves up, thrived for a time, were then subsumed, and finally – in name, at least – disappeared altogether. (Kingsley Manton & Palmer, The Kirkwood Company, The Creative Business, Grandfield Rork Collins, Allen Brady & Marsh, Lowe Howard-Spink, Collett Dickenson Pearce, Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, Hedger Mitchell Stark… and that’s without resorting to reference.) What stops this chronicle from being as sad as it seems is the knowledge that each one of these entities, though in vastly differing measure, contributed something lasting to the pool of knowledge, talent and work that British advertising owns. It’s as untraceable as that of an upstream tributary to the Thames – but the value to us all of start-ups continues to this day.

Once an agency is bought by a marketing group, myth tends to take over. The principals get rich, then bored, then buy chateaux and leave. Creative spark is extinguished and remote management figures insist on monthly financial reviews that leave a once proudly eccentric agency indistinguishable from a dozen others. And sometimes, sadly, this myth has its roots in reality.

But, happily, it doesn’t have to be like this. And there’s a surprising number of living examples to show that it isn’t always like this. Unlike most independents, an owned agency can have an indefinite life expectancy – because (when properly understood and nurtured) it can mutate from being a distinctive agency to being a distinctive brand; and, as we all know, a brand (unlike a mere product) can be immortal.

So you should certainly be wary about this potential suitor – indeed, any potential suitor. But the end of independence doesn’t inevitably mean the end of everything you like about this business.
I can’t remember the last time I watched regular TV. I skip ads online and have ad-blocker programmes on my computer, and yet I still work in advertising. Am I a hopeless hypocrite?

Hypocrite’s not the right word.

Had Mary Whitehouse been a closet Penthouse subscriber, she would have been a hypocrite. A senior banker who publicly preaches the importance of corporate rectitude while knowingly laundering the profits of drug barons is without question a hypocrite. To be a bona fide hypocrite, you need to parade your righteous beliefs while actively flouting them.

From what you tell me, you’re not in principle opposed to advertising; you just don’t find advertisements very interesting so you choose not to watch them. This doesn’t make you a hypocrite. It does, however, make you slightly stupid – and may before long make you unemployable.

What is the one best piece of career advice you’ve received?

The only career advice I was ever given was that from my department head when I was sent off to New York to learn about the mysterious new advertising medium of television: "Get your hair cut and don’t wear suede shoes." I complied with both instructions – and stayed with the company for another 29 years. I suppose it must have been good advice.

‘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