Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: I'm a client who has been asked by my agency to connive in a "scam" ad it wants to produce for a global competition. The agency wants the PR and I like the idea of being associated with award-winning work. Does it matter if the rules get bent a bit?


Q: As the industry is apparently getting younger, is 28 over the hill? I think I've hit my mid-life crisis already. Is there any help for me?

A: Thank you very much for this question. It allows me to open a huge, locked box labelled Well-Fermented Prejudices. But before I start, I should declare an interest. Despite appearances, I am myself over 28 - and have been for some time. In fact, I was getting on for 25 when I came into this business; so if 28 had been over the hill then, I'd have enjoyed an unusually brief career. As it was, I didn't know anything remotely useful until I was at least 30.

You're quite right: the industry is getting younger - and has been every year since 1965. So if we extrapolate, we find that, by 2017, most advertising people will be over the hill 18 months before they graduate. This truth prompts two further questions. Why has our trade so systematically eliminated maturity from its offering to clients? And, as a result, has our trade become more or less valued?

Until 1965, advertising agencies, which had already existed for 100 years, were professionally committed to advertising. After 1965, they were committed only to advertisements. Nobody under 50 understands this distinction.

An understanding of advertising profound enough to be of value to clients incorporates an understanding of economics, market psychology, anthropology, communications theory, semiotics and all forms of research. (The first ever market research company in Britain was set up in the 30s by an advertising agency.) Advertising preceded marketing as a discipline by several decades and covered very much the same ground. Senior clients would seek the advice of senior advertising people on new product development, key executive appointments, overseas expansion and acquisition policy. Management consultants had yet to be invented. In many cases, the agency acted as the marketing body on behalf of the client: The Cheese Bureau and The Butter Information Council, for example. The addresses on the coupons were the addresses of the agencies. Agencies also produced advertisements - including point-of-sale material, PR, staff newsletters and packaging. The word advertising denoted everything the French mean when they talk about publicite - and a great deal more.

That's what advertising meant until 1965. So it can be seen that there was plenty of opportunity for people over 28 to make a significant contribution to clients' business decisions. Indeed, there was a compelling commercial need for such people: store-houses of priceless experience, shrewd, thoughtful, slightly academic and with great personal authority.

When, after 1965, the advertising business drifted into the belief that its only function was the production of advertisements, the need for such wise old birds inevitably decayed. And the decline of the commission system suddenly made them seem extremely expensive.

Since there were no longer any wise old birds in agencies, there were no tutors; so nobody graduated from a talent for ads to a mastery of advertising. And since there were no longer any wise old birds in agencies, senior clients turned elsewhere for their injections of wisdom. In the bad old days of the commission system, wisdom came free with the ads. Today, clients pay for it. It's hard to see the benefit for anyone much.

So to return to your question: if you believe a career in advertising demands nothing more than an engaging manner and a quick wit, you may well be over the hill quite soon. There are lots of younger ones behind you: at least as engaging, just as quick-witted and attractively cheaper. But if you consciously assemble what you already know about the business - and then spend a great deal of time augmenting it - you'll find that your personal opinion takes on a value. And that's as close to a definition of being a professional as you're likely to get.

Sorry for the rant. I enjoyed it, anyway.

Q: Can you tell us one of your favourite advertising stories?

A: Heard about old Gideon?

B: No ...?

A: Dead.

B: Good God! What did he have?

A: Mostly trade stuff - nothing very interesting.

- "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.