Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: I enlisted a famous celebrity for my latest campaign. The ad seemed like a great idea on paper - friendly celebrity matched with a family brand. But the finished product isn't what I'd hoped; in fact, it's the worst thing we've produced so far this year. What can I learn from this? Should I be using celebrities any more?

A: How long have you been in advertising? Either this is your first year or your critical faculties are in need of new batteries. Records over the past 50 years show that, out of every ten great ideas on paper, one turns out to be great, six turn out to be just about adequate and three turn out to be right bummers. There are at least two reasons for this undistinguished performance.

Most great ideas on paper aren't great. They aren't even great on paper. For those uncertain of their creative judgment, here's a tip. If the creative team insists on a specified, award-winning director and a post-production budget of more than a million, you can be reasonably certain that the creative team, too, knows it's not a great idea. Money can sometimes rescue a script from the right bummer category and nudge it over the line into the just-about-adequate category; but money will never make it great.

Then again, the script is the world's most inadequate proxy for a piece of finished film - except, of course, for the storyboard. The more explicit a script attempts to be, the more it tries to compensate for not incorporating movement and sound, the more inadequate it becomes. All great ideas contain gaps ... traps ... cunningly set for audience completion; that's what makes them great. The script, in order to obtain production approval, fills in those gaps. It's like explaining the point of a joke just before you get to it. So by the time a great idea has been expounded laboriously enough to be given the green light, it's no longer a great idea.

Your own right bummer was nothing whatever to do with the use of celebrities. There's nothing right or wrong as such with categories: with celebrities, slice-of-life or animation. In your case, it was either not a very good idea in the first place or you blew it in production. You may well have managed both: it's not that difficult.

Q: I'm a media buyer at a large media agency, but I have always fancied myself as a copywriter. Is it possible to cross the great divide and move into an ad agency? If so, where can I start looking for a creative partner?

A: Dear Walter Mitty, thank you for your letter. Do you also fancy yourself as a concert pianist or a world-famous brain surgeon?

You fancy yourself as a copywriter because you read a lot of ads and think: "I could have written that." And you're quite right; you could. Anybody could. In fact, anybody did.

If your ability to write is no greater than the ability of the average working copywriter, you haven't a hope of becoming one yourself. Nor do you deserve to.

But it's just about possible, I suppose, that I do you an injustice: you may be able to write brilliantly, incisively, evocatively and persuasively. If so, you need to demonstrate that you can. You don't get a job in an orchestra without an audition.

Many years ago, copy tests became as unfashionable as the 11-Plus, and for much the same reasons. Since then, the standard of writing in advertising has declined inexorably and a few enlightened agencies and the IPA have noticed. The copy test could be set for a welcome return. Meanwhile, invent your own.

If you can demonstrate that you can write brilliantly, incisively, evocatively and persuasively, send the result to the six agencies whose work you most admire. Five won't bother to acknowledge your submission, and one will ask to see you. After that, it's up to you.

But remember: to have a chance, you need to be better than just about anyone currently doing it. It's not that challenging.

Q: I am at the more mature end of the market and I have noticed a recent trend by a number of my contemporaries to join digital companies and agencies. Is this a professional mid-life crisis or a sign of things to come? Should I jump on the bandwagon too?

A: Why should a digital agency want you? If it's simply for pitches, so that they can say: "And this is Gideon, he's our analogue guy. He's actually worked in television," then I'd stay firmly away. But if you have a real chance to overcome your techno-phobia and start to feel comfortable with what in effect is little more than a new vocabulary, then go for it. In six years' time, it will all be one thing again, anyway.

- "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.

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