On the Campaign Couch...with JB
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign Couch...with JB

Q: A not insignificant car brand has approached our agency inviting us to have "exploratory talks" in regards to where their brand is heading and how they should advertise in 2012.

They say they are happy with their agency partner and don't want to pitch, but at the same time would like to test the water and meet other agencies too. New business is tight so we're always keen on new opportunities, but this lot just wants to steal our ideas, right?

A: Whatever the economic climate, all worthwhile agencies will always be keen on new opportunities. And the number of agencies keen on new opportunities will always greatly exceed the number of new opportunities available. Clients don't need to be clever to know this; whenever they're rumoured to be footloose, they're pursued relentlessly. Agencies offer them new research, whole-day no-obligation planning sessions and lunch at the House of Lords with a former cabinet minister.

Now imagine you're a marketing director. You're not exactly dissatisfied with your current agency; they've served you well and you're on excellent personal terms with their top management. But your brand has recently lost market share and your principal competitor is running a hugely popular advertising campaign that has captured the imagination of millions, become hot property on YouTube and turned your competitor's equivalent of you into a marketing superstar.

What should you do? Plug along, haunted by the feeling that there must be something rather better out there and fielding the odd snide comment from the sales director? Embark on a formal, open, creative review - at immense cost and bringing all your marketing momentum to a halt for at least six months? Or graciously accept some of the invitations showered upon you by competitive agencies and suggest to a few others that you might have an exploratory talk?

You raise the subject with your CEO - and he's baffled by your hesitation. He's got to where he is by screwing everything he can get from competitive suppliers and clearly thinks you're in danger of going native.

Right. You can stop being the marketing director now and become your agency again. You've got a simple decision to make. You either decline the suggestion from this not insignificant car brand - very, very politely, of course, and making it clear that it's strictly on principle. Or you respond instantly, charge your top planner with the task of unearthing a killer insight, summon up every bit of evidence of your company's ability to solve not-dissimilar business problems and present it all with infectious but under-played enthusiasm.

Alternatively, you allow them in with obvious reluctance and then treat them with ill-disguised suspicion. This enables you to betray your principles while insuring against any possible compensating benefit.

Q: Car ads are notoriously difficult because unlike every other product, there's nothing different you can do apart from show the car in motion each time. So what makes good car ads stand out from the crowd?

A: I don't think I've read anything as ignorant as your first sentence: "... unlike every other product, there's nothing different you can do apart from show the car in motion."

One of the most valuable contributions advertising can make is to differentiate similar products through style and personality: what 80 years ago, James Webb Young called "adding a value not in the product". With cars, however, you don't even have to. Cars, and car companies, are rich in difference: in style, history, engineering, country of origin - and in the infinite variety of their owners and uses. Why do you think dogs love cars? Cars don't love washing machines. A car is the closest that any machine gets to worming itself into the human heart.

You've been misled by those endless sequences of endless cars driving endlessly round the same mountain road into thinking all cars are indistinguishable. Perversely, it's only their advertising that makes it seem so.

For a crash course in great car advertising, find a copy of The 100 Greatest Advertisements, published in 1959. There are at least ten outstanding car ads in it; and because they're all print ads, none can show the cars in motion. Perhaps there's a lesson there.

Q: Congratulations on picking up the Mackintosh Medal last week. Will you please put us all out of our misery and tell when or if you're planning to write your autobiography.

A: Thank you. The autobiography of a person who's had one marriage, one job and lived in only one country would be either very short or very boring. Or possibly both.

"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