Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: I am a digital marketing specialist who is sceptical that anybody really knows what "the line" is anymore. Please explain. Above, below, on, off or through. What is it?

A: Once upon a time, O Best Beloved, there was an ingenious device called a commission. Let me explain it to you. I expect you think that advertising agents were called advertising agents because they acted as agents for their advertising clients? Wrong. Ad agencies traditionally acted as agents for media owners. When they sold space in a given publication to a client, the client would send a cheque to the agent; the agent would keep a bit for themselves ("the commission") and send the rest on to the publication.

If advertisers wanted to buy direct from the media they qualified for no commission so buying from an agent was no more expensive. Agencies were paid by the media: to the clients, they were free. And since those agents, still at no cost, not only provided a media schedule based on readership data but quite soon words and pictures as well, advertisers got an amazing deal. Thus it came about that the most valuable contribution an advertising agency could make to an advertiser - a brand idea of great persuasiveness and longevity - was never paid for. It came as free as a DVD in The Mail on Sunday's polybag. It still sticks in the craw of creative people but it's true: from the very beginning, their work was no more than an on-pack offer, designed to sugar-coat the cost of media.

However, other forms of sales promotion didn't work like this. Clients bought display cards and brochures and merchandising material direct from their producers - for an agreed fee. So when an ad manager clambered up on to his stool, adjusted his celluloid cuffs, dipped his pen in his inkwell and began to itemise his company's promotional expenditure for scrutiny by The Board, he would make a distinction. Commissionable items, media costs, would be listed first. He would then draw a line; and below that line, he'd itemise the lesser expenditures.

So you can see that "the line" never really meant anything of significance.

It became significant only because cunning and duplicitous advertising agencies conspired to give it significance. Threatened by sales promotion techniques, whose effectiveness could be calculated more quickly and more accurately than that of an advertising campaign, they decided to portray all non-commissionable activity as grubby, socially inferior and almost certainly harmful to the long-term reputation of the brand. Gratefully, they embraced the phrase "below the line".

Below the line soon became more or less synonymous with beneath the pale and below the salt. Above-the-line work, by contrast, was elevated stuff, closely following the path laid down by Michelangelo, and greatly enhancing the social standing of both the brand and the brand's managers.

All thought was suspended. Below was the only word that registered. Only real advertising was Above.

This must be one of the most successful confidence tricks ever perpetrated on any group of supposedly intelligent people. That it thrives to this day is shameful. It perpetuates a concept that never existed.

So your scepticism is fully justified. Why don't you start a crusade to get the phrase laughed out of use?

Q: How come advertising and direct marketing agencies are utterly convinced that creativity wanes after the age of 30? Or is it now 25?

A: Not all of them are and the best of them aren't. The problem, like most advertising problems, is caused by a failure to distinguish between advertising and advertisements; and therefore between advertising and advertisement agencies.

Newly graduated creative teams come tumbling out of school, their satchels bulging with books full of ads: dozens and dozens of clever headlines and cool TVCs but never a big brand idea or an ad campaign among them.

Maybe they weren't taught about advertising; maybe they didn't listen; maybe getting your head round the idea of brands is just too painful and the concept of effectiveness just too socially shameful. So they get a job on the strength of the book; turn out uni-style ads totally unrooted in specific brand values; win a gong or two; move on; and by the time they're 30, still having failed to learn anything about advertising, suddenly discover that their particular intractable style has become old hat. It's not that they've burnt themselves out. It just that they never understood what they were for.

Creative people who do understand go on being valued for ever, in both advertising agencies and direct marketing agencies. You know who they are.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683. Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haynet.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.

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