Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Dear Jeremy, would you watch a TV programme on your mobile phone? My ad agency reckons it's the future for my brand to get into content-making and that creating a new mobile soap opera is the way forward. I feel very nervous about the prospect.

A: I may have written before about the Penguin Principle. As dawn breaks on the ice flow, penguins rearrange their feathers and think about breakfast. Like Underground commuters, they shuffle to the edge of the ice flow and there they pause, peering into the dark waters. What they're trying to determine is this: should they decide to jump, will they soon be enjoying breakfast - or will they soon be being breakfast? The difference is important to them.

From the back of the crowd, late-rising penguins continue to apply pressure - until the front-row penguins are propelled into the sea. At once all further movement stops. More peering takes place. The moment it's established that the pioneer penguins are having a very fine breakfast indeed, the rest then follow with carefree enthusiasm, like children in a paddling pool. Should it become clear, however, that the pioneer penguins are providing the breakfast, the hunger pangs of the remaining penguins strangely evaporate. They retire again to the back of the ice flow, telling themselves that a bit of a lie-in every now and then is no more than they deserve.

By encouraging you to fund the production of a new soap opera for mobile phones, your agency is trying to goad you into becoming a pioneer penguin. A lot of other advertisers will watch with great interest. Given the difficulty of inventing any good soap opera, which you'd then need to make available through an unproved and technically inadequate distribution system, the chances are you'd be eaten alive. Not every first mover enjoys a lasting advantage.

Q: Have you been watching Mad Men? Has advertising lost its glamour?

A: Yes, I have been watching Mad Men. And as soon as I realised it wasn't about advertising, I began to enjoy it a lot. It's written, cast, plotted and directed extremely skilfully and some of the characters have a creepy subtlety unusual in TV drama. I'm hooked.

I spent several weeks in an ad agency in New York City in 1958 and more later in the 60s (on Lexington rather than Madison). Nothing I saw was anything like Mad Men. Lady copywriters sat together and were expected to wear hats. The agency declined to handle tobacco and liquor accounts on moral grounds. Speculative new-business pitches didn't exist. In Mad Men, a huge company is represented at a client meeting by the chairman and his son. In real client meetings, there would be at least seven people from the company and as many from the agency. Most took place at the clients' own offices in upstate New York or Pennsylvania. All campaign proposals had to be subjected to the clinical scrutiny of an internal review board before they could be exposed to the most junior client. There was intensive use of market research.

At no time did creative directors, however talismanic, have formal authority over account men - however oleaginous. It's true that there was a lot of smoking and that nobody drank wine: but that wasn't peculiar to advertising agencies. When, about that time, the US agency head came to a decorous London office party at the Dorchester, he reported afterwards that, "while moderately enjoyable, there was far too much drinking and licentious dancing". It's true this particular agency was among the more staid; but it was a great deal closer to a Madison Avenue reality than Sterling Cooper.

None of this matters in the least. Mad Men is no more about advertising than The Archers is about farming - it's just ten times more intelligent and entertaining. If you're lured into believing that Mad Men is about advertising, you'll spend the rest of your life bitterly regretting that you missed out on something that never happened.

Q: I'm a creative director with absolutely nothing vaguely digital in my portfolio. Are my days of employment inevitably numbered or is there still room for people who do good traditional work?

A: Masters of the new technology (aged 24) delight in making those from more traditional forms feel ignorant, exposed and obsolete. Great print journalists, gazing into the depths of their whisky glasses, contemplate personal oblivion. Don't you fall for it, too. Make the effort to find out exactly what it is that the digitalists know. You'll be amazed to discover just how little it is - and how much they could benefit from your own experience.

- "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.