Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Dear Jeremy, it seems that barely a week goes by without Campaign reporting the hiring of a communications planner at one of the big media networks. Is communications planning the latest fad in the media agency world or does it have something genuinely new to offer in the rapidly changing media landscape?

This deceptively simple question demands a depressingly long answer.

Way back in 1864, which I remember well, there were people who made things and there were people who bought things. Because of the Industrial Revolution and the invention of factories, the people who made things and the people who bought things no longer lived in the same village and no longer knew each other personally. So the people who made things had to find some other way of keeping in touch with the people who bought things so that the people who bought things would still know what they could buy and where they could find it.

There was a clear and growing need for publicity. Billboards helped, and flyers, and the occasional town crier; but luckily, almost everyone who bought things also bought a newspaper or a magazine - and the owners of these newspapers and magazines very kindly allowed the people who made things to display their wares in their pages so that the people who bought things knew they existed and why they were good. These displays were called advertisements (with the emphasis on the ad) and they proved a boon to all. The owners of the newspapers and magazines were pleased because they were able to charge modest amounts for publishing them. The people who made things were pleased because they could sell things to thousands of people they'd never met. And the people who bought things were pleased not only because they now knew what they could buy but also because the cost of their newspaper was now usefully subsidised.

There was only one snag. The people who made things made very good soap and corsets and bootlaces but they didn't know how to make advertisements. And they certainly didn't know which of the thousands of magazines and newspapers they should select in which to display their advertisements. And the owners of those magazines and newspapers certainly didn't know how to get in touch with the thousands of people who made things who might wish to display their wares in their pages. A gap existed and a bridge was needed. And so the advertising agent was born.

This is what the advertising agent said to the owners of the newspapers: for an agreed commission, I will sell space in your papers on your behalf. And to the people who made things, he said: I will work out scientifically which papers and magazines you should select in order to give you most sales for your money. I will sell you space in those newspapers and magazines for exactly the same price that you would pay if you bought it yourself. And at no extra cost, I will provide you with the words and pictures that will occupy that space - which will be so skilfully crafted that they will persuade untold millions to buy your wares.

In other words, from the very beginning, advertising required planning, media buying and creative work. One hundred and forty-three years later, that's still all it needs.

The entire confusion that currently shrouds our trade stems from one seditious collective aberration. It happened quite slowly and over time and as a result it's gone largely unrecorded. Somewhere between 1864 and 1984 advertising practitioners, without exception, stopped thinking about advertising and began thinking exclusively about advertisements: and in this they were encouraged by awards ceremonies, the trade press and celebrity marketing directors.

As late as 1960, the word advertising embraced everything that we now, uncomfortably, are obliged to call marketing communications. Years before the word touchpoint was coined, good advertising agencies were interested in, and competent at, every form of brand encounter: from pack design to in-store merchandising to public relations. They were all part of advertising. The old-style advertising agency would have greeted the internet, interactivity, viral marketing, digitisation, product placement and UGC with unthreatened eagerness. It's only advertisement agencies, hobbled as they are by their addiction to a few elderly media techniques, that have struggled to come to terms with the new century.

And so to your question: communications planning is no fad. It is as old as advertising. Advertising can't be done without it. But it demands the most open of minds, totally devoid of preconception. Such minds are rarely found in advertisement agencies.

- "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@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.