Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: I'm the chairman of an agency that's been approached by a TV production company wanting to do a "fly-on-the-wall" documentary about advertising. I know there's a danger we'll be stitched up. However, our new business record has been poor of late and we could use the publicity. What should we do?

A: For advertising agencies to look ridiculous, they don't have to be stitched up. They just have to be themselves.

I have long imagined the following scene. We are in a focus group facility. There are two rooms, separated by the traditional one-way mirror. In the discussion room, an advertising agency is about to present its creative proposals to a recently acquired and important client. On the other side of the mirror, able to see but themselves unseen, sits a carefully recruited sample of TV viewers. They lean forward with interest.

The clients are ushered in - and the senior account handler greets them with holiday camp enthusiasm. The clients settle - and the senior account handler states the agency's conviction that this is the most critical moment in the history of the non-bio liquitab sector since the invention of soap. A new-age planner, complete with combat trousers, takes over. He spends some time on the Kyoto Protocol, being of the view that global preoccupation with climate change presents the client with an unprecedented competitive opportunity. He also uses the word holistic a lot. His final PowerPoint slide sums it all up: his client's brand must epitomise and embrace human values that transcend the mundane act of washing clothes and represent an over-arching ideal, communicable across all channels and geographies, that seizes a pre-emptive position on both functional and emotional levels. Behind the mirror, the audience is beginning to snigger.

The executive creative director is introduced by the new-age planner. He says: "Thanks, Gideon." And then goes on to say: "As Gideon was saying ..." And then spends a very long time making what Gideon said even more confusing than it was in the first place. His crucial point, as if unveiling a new truth, is that consumers are now so media-savvy, that they no longer respond to the old, 80s, one-way model of communication. Today's consumers reject all forms of product self-congratulation and demand involvement, reward and entertainment. The less the brand itself is featured, the more powerfully the brand will be communicated. He also spends some time talking about cut-through, stand-out, envelope-pushing, category-breaking and the need for balls.

By the time the creative proposals for non-bio liquitabs are finally revealed, the audience of typical TV viewers, hidden from view on the other side of the mirror, is wiping its eyes with a mixture of hilarity, disbelief and contempt.

The reason: for advertising agencies to look ridiculous, they don't have to be stitched up. They just have to be themselves.

What is a TV producer, however saintly, however Reithian in his commitment to objective truth, expected to do with material of this kind?

Captains of industry occasionally boast: "That chap Humphrys doesn't bother me. I know old Nigel came a bit of a cropper, but I like to think I'm made of sterner stuff. I'll have him begging for mercy in no time."

Agency chairmen occasionally think that they - and they alone - can emerge with credit from a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Like the captains of industry, they're destined for inevitable humiliation - in front of their colleagues, their family, their clients and their potential clients. By far the most appreciative members of the audience will be their competitors.

I'm sorry to have to remind you: not all publicity is good publicity.

Q: Trade bodies for the various media keep sending me research to suggest that their medium is the most effective. Should I believe them?

A: You should read these circulars with more care. Most of them have stopped claiming that their respective media are the most effective and now claim that their specific medium, when used in conjunction with another, bigger medium, improves average ROI by 28.42 per cent.

So, my own view is that competitive media should stop squabbling amongst themselves and undermining everyone's confidence by filming their rivals dumping copies under the cover of darkness. What's clearly needed is a co-operative campaign on behalf of all media. It would be the biggest campaign in the country, dominating all media, old and new. "Because everything works better when used with everything else, you just need to buy more of everything." It could probably do with a slogan.

- "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.