Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: A number of older agencies have philosophies such as "truth well told", "disruption", and "brutal simplicity of thought", but are such mantras irrelevant for the "digital" agencies operating in the online space?

A: Forget about the newer digital agencies for a moment. A better question is: "Are such philosophies relevant even for the longer-established agencies?" And the answer is no.

Proprietary agency formulae for success, such as the ones you quote above, invariably focus on styles of execution. I've never understood why this should be because you've only got to have been in the business for ten minutes to know that great agencies have as many different styles at their disposal as they have brands. And for a very good reason. All brands have different personalities, different brand shares, different histories, different requirements and different users. That's how we know they're brands. To call a brand unique is tautological. A brand that isn't unique isn't a brand. To claim that all the best ads for absolutely everything should share some common ingredient is not only wrong, but can quickly be seen to be so.

Take two brands. One, a comfortable, well-maintained brand leader, selling to many millions of satisfied people with mildly conservative inclinations; and the other, a young upstart of a brand, setting out to make people reassess first their prejudices and then their behaviour. There is no single executional style or device or approach that can conceivably be of equal value to both these brands. Karl Popper famously pointed out the huge advantages of invalidation. If your hypothesis is that all swans are white, you can continue to observe white swans until the end of time, but you'll never be certain. The observation of just one black swan, however, kills your hypothesis stone dead with a brutal finality. Painful, perhaps, but infinitely valuable. You can subject every executionally-based agency "philosophy" to the same critical analysis. All can be invalidated. None will survive as having universal application.

The only tenable philosophies, though a great deal less sexy, centre on the agency's skill at identifying exactly what any advertising is expected to contribute to the brand's well-being. This is planning - and it's very difficult. Done well, it leads inexorably not to some agency's all-purpose style of advertising but to each individual brand's style of advertising. And that, of course, should apply just as much to every other aspect of the brand's communication - from shelf-wobblers to all things digital.

Q: I'm going to be calling a pitch over the next few months. I will employ a matchmaker, but wanted to ask you nevertheless: do you recommend drawing up a shortlist of very different agencies? We currently use the London outpost of a global network. I was thinking of asking perhaps a couple more network shops, a domestic shop, a creative hotshop and maybe even a digital agency. What do you think?

A: I think you're daft. I think you need to sit down and work out very, very carefully exactly what it is your business needs and how your own company is structured. If you go through with your plan, you'll face only bewilderment. You'll sit through at least seven pitches. Most will tell you what you already know and regurgitate the brief you sent to them at three times the length - but there will be highlights. In particular, three individuals demonstrate mesmeric qualities. You don't remember a thing they've said but they're shiningly different from your own pedestrian people and you can't wait to have them on your side. The trouble is, they work for three different companies. Two other companies, though totally lacking in high-calibre people, come up with one-off ideas you'd love to run. Neither fits the compelling strategy presented by yet another company whose executions are so clearly derivative as to be legally vulnerable. The creative hotshop, anxious to live up to expectations, hits you with an off- the-wall idea that - in their own words - demands 110 per cent commitment from a client with real balls. Neither you, nor your second-in-command, understands a word of the digital company's proposals - which leaves you with the uneasy conviction that they must know what they're talking about.

After three months and many thousands of working hours lost, you'll be in a state of catatonic indecision. At that point, the smoothest-talking agency CEO takes you out to lunch and commits himself personally to orchestrating your every need in every medium across every channel and consumer touchpoint. You almost blub with gratitude - and so consign your company's communications needs to the agency least qualified to deliver them.

- "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.