On the Campaign couch
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

I’m the marketing director at a major retailer. In the past two years, we have spent a lot of money on high-concept Christmas ad campaigns but our like-for-like sales still declined. Should we keep trying?

Whenever advertising becomes a news item in itself, I can feel a twinge of old-fashioned disapproval coming on. I’ve always wondered a bit about Super Bowl ads, for example. They’ve long been what media commentators like to call a cultural phenomenon – and a live audience of 100 million, not counting spin-offs, is not to be sniffed at, I suppose. But even so: how comfortable would you feel about spending $5 million for the privilege of spending rather less than half-a-minute in their company – while jostling for attention with 120 others? What chance does your fleeting little 28-second flick book have, which cost nearly as much to make as it does to show, to add $10 million to the desirability of whatever it is you’re hoping to sell? I’m only asking because that’s presumably the expectation that justified the decision to take part. (If it’s not that, it can only be willy-waving.)

The nearest this country’s got to such a cultural phenomenon is the parade of high-cost, high-concept Christmas retailer campaigns that’s now concerning you. And when retailers start to compete among themselves not on sales, not on share, not on profit margins – but on the likeability of their seasonal advertisements, the purist in me stops to think.

You shouldn’t read too much into the decline of your like-for-like sales. This kind of advertising may have some immediate effect – it’s great when it does – but you’ll never be sure and it’s certainly not its primary purpose. Its primary purpose is to enrich the long-term attractiveness of the stores: not through claim or offer but entirely through emotional asso­ciation. And though it’s fiendishly difficult to establish a reliable return on investment for such advertising, so indeed it may.

It may, too, enthuse and energise your staff, prompt favourable comment in the media, prompt Tweets and retweets and run riot on YouTube.

It may. So you shouldn’t stop trying because your sales were down. You might, however, want to stop trying because you’ve come to the conclusion that advertising your advertising is less efficient than advertising your business.

Do let me know how you get on.

My chief executive is insisting that I ask agencies to pay for the right to pitch for my creative brief. I’ve told him it’s very bad practice but he’s adamant. What should I do?

I’m sorry you say "my creative brief". This suggests that you keep the marketing and advertising functions tightly clutched to your own chest and resent anyone else, including your CEO, from coming too close. This is always a mistake, not least because it encourages others – such as your CEO – to see marketing as just one of the spending departments that need to be constantly reined in. Procurement will see nothing but good business sense in demanding that potential suppliers pay for the right to compete to supply – and your CEO will applaud them for being hard-nosed and wish that marketing showed some of the same rigour.

If you’re going to dissuade your CEO from insisting on this venal practice, you’re going to have to take an immense risk. You’re going to have to tell your CEO about the nature of brands; about the critical need for intuition and talent in the successful pursuit of profit; about the incalculable value of agency partners who prize working on your business for reasons not entirely driven by mere money. You’re going to have to tell him that he’ll send out an unmistakable signal to all good agencies – "we are insensitive, unimaginative bastards" – and will thereby deny his brands access to priceless alchemy.

You won’t be able to prove the truth of anything you say. You’ll sound absurd. But if you sound as convinced and as passionate as you should be, my guess is your CEO, probably with a sly aside about your going native, will give you the benefit of the doubt. And, from now on, please, don’t keep marketing to yourself. The more it’s seen to drive the entire company, the safer you’ll be from ignorant interference.

‘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