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

On the Campaign Couch...with JB

Steve Hatch writes: Dear Jeremy, at Cannes this year, Google's Mr Eric Schmidt was quoted as follows: "We also believe that untargeted ads are not worth very much. The classic example being that on traditional television, the television doesn't know whether there's a baby at home, whether you need diapers or not, so why does it show a diapers ad?"

Is he right? Have we valued fame too highly, perhaps because we did not previously have a choice other than (when we got it right) to create fame?

I should caution you that Mr Schmidt was recognised at Cannes as the Media Person of the Year, so he obviously knows a thing or two ...

A: Thanks very much, Steve. You raise a hugely important point. It's one I've been thinking about (and writing about) for at least 15 years. I keep expecting to have to change my mind but I still haven't. Yet.

In 1994, in a speech to the IPA (Advertising Costs Half As Much As You Think It Does. But Do You Know Which Half?), I poked around rather tentatively at the whole subject of media waste. Ever since the first Lord Leverhulme was alleged to have raised the subject, advertisers have been deeply niggled by the fact that every time they bought space in large circulation newspapers or time on network television, they were paying for access to millions of people of no value to them.

Eric Schmidt's diapers are a perfect example. I don't know what proportion of households is in the disposable nappy market but I do know it's not 100 per cent. Surely every non-nappy buyer expensively reached by a nappy advertisement is as good a definition of pure waste as you're likely to get?

Well, actually - probably not.

Familiarity, and its first cousin fame, are a successful brand's first and most fundamental requirement. The late great Professor Andrew Ehrenberg argued it for years (he called it salience). In 2001, I picked the point up in my British Brands Group Posh Spice And Persil lecture. Rory Sutherland endorsed it in his own British Brands Group lecture last month.

And the thing about real fame is this: it's indiscriminate. A brilliant musician may be a household name to other musicians but to be as famous as Madonna, you need to be known to everyone. This means, however illogical it may sound, that for a brand to be known to people who will never buy it has a commercial value to that brand.

For a century or more, brands have selected mass media reluctantly, accepting the inevitable "waste" because of the absence of any alternative; to use Schmidt's word, they have been "untargeted". Today, however, it's becoming possible to conceive of a media plan that delivers a disposable nappy advertisement only to those with babies and excludes all those millions of people without. What long-overdue professionalism! What frugality! All baby: no bathwater.

But that, as I argued in Market Leader in 1999, is seriously to underestimate the value of bathwater. The truth, I think, is that we're finding it difficult to come to terms with the fact that much of what we long believed to be waste actually wasn't; and that, purely inadvertently, we might have been doing the right thing all along.

It's 12 years since Tom Wolfe said: "It's almost impossible to make a name for yourself on the internet unless you do something scandalous like Matt Drudge." I remember reading that and thinking: "Yep, seems to be true - but, of course, it's early days. Certain to change." Twelve years later, and excluding digital brands such as Google, it's still hard to think of a non-digital brand that's made a name for itself through exclusive use of the internet. And at exactly the time when Red Bull, for example, with a spectacular absence of targeting, has triumphantly demonstrated what indiscriminate fame can deliver.

Targeting suggests precision. We've long preached the value of the rifle over the shotgun. It's been a given that blunt instruments were bad. But if more or less every sentient human being is a legitimate member of a target group, maybe the blunter the better. At least for now.

Q: Will targeted TV advertising be a good thing or will it lead to a decline in creativity as it has made advertising "easier"?

A: See above. In many ways, the agency leaving card, with its target audience of one, and about whom absolutely everything is known, presents the greatest of all creative challenges. But a talent to appeal to multiple millions will continue to be right at the top of most advertisers' shopping lists.

"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.