Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Dear Jeremy, what proportion of television ads would you estimate were actually any good? I reckon about 10 per cent at most have any creative idea or decent strategy. What's your view? And if it's less than 50 per cent, isn't that a terribly depressing thought?

A: Only 7.6 per cent of TV ads are actually any good. That means that 92.4 per cent of TV ads are actually quite bad. If it weren't for a few under-recognised and invisible side- effects of TV advertising, the amount of money spent on TV would, entirely properly, be cut by 90 per cent.

The embarrassing if widely ignored truth is this: even very bad television ads have a commercial value to their companies. This is absolutely no excuse for permitting very bad television ads to be written, accepted, produced and transmitted; but it does help explain why so much bad advertising survives. If television ads had no value other than their ability to persuade their audience to change their ways, most would be quickly seen to fail and would be mercifully put down. The reason they're preserved is because of their secondary effects - which have nothing whatever to do with creative merit.

I've long believed that companies who don't advertise, and have no intention of advertising, should nonetheless regularly embark on a rigorous advertising planning process. In order to produce good advertising, you have first to find out a lot about your product, a lot about your company and a lot about real people. You need to know what real people think about you and what they think about your competitors. You need to find out what they like and what they don't like; and what they believe to be true about your product even when it isn't. And you need to identify those promises that real people respond to and those from which they recoil. The planning that a proper campaign demands is of immense value to a company - whether or not it plans to advertise. Companies that fail to undertake such regular voyages of enquiry suddenly find themselves entirely out of touch. The world has changed against them; and by the time they wake up to the truth, it's usually too late.

So even the worst advertising has inadvertently demonstrated a clear commercial value long before it's become advertising.

Then, of course, we need to look at the tedious subject of distribution. You're all familiar with those PowerPoint presentations which demonstrate in multicoloured graphics the steep concentration of retail power. They all say the same thing. In 1965, there were 3,231,065 retail outlets all buy-ing from manufacturers independently. Today, in 2008, 93.67 per cent of your market is in the hands of just five buying points. Fall out with those five buying points and you might as well close the factory. No real person, however brand loyal, will even have access to your alluring packages let alone be able to buy them. You will have been de-listed - which for a box of cornflakes is the equivalent of being excommunicated. The doors have been slammed in your face. You are dead.

So how do you get back the keys to those doors? You attempt to persuade the omnipotent retailer that consumer demand for your brand will be so insistent that, were the public to find it unavailable, they would take their £650-a-week budget to another part of town for evermore. "Aha!", the wicked grocer says. "But how can I be certain of that insistent demand?" And at this point, the marketing director produces his media schedule. It will be couched in virtually unintelligible terms, but will be graphically impressive. It will demonstrate that the average potential consumer will be exposed to 18.45 commercial impacts (which may or may not involve GRPs) every seven days for the next millennium. Demand is thereby assured; a short sordid discussion revolves around discounts; and the brand is finally granted grudging permission to occupy an almost adequate number of metres of shelf-space.

And thus it is that television ads, totally irrespective of content, and probably as-yet-unexecuted, have already made an absolutely essential contribution to the brand's prosperity.

That as many as 7.6 per cent of them are also on strategy and compellingly persuasive is no more than an agreeable bonus.

Q: David Abbott once said that there was an "art-directional effect of long copy". What did he mean?

A: I suggest you ask him. But he probably meant that long copy doesn't have to be read to be effective. "If there's that much to be said about it, there must be a lot to be said about it."

- "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.