Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: When I read the adland blogs everyone seems quite bitter and frustrated. Is this just a letting off of steam under the safe cloak of anonymity, or do you think it's a fair reflection of the current industry vibe?

A: Bloggers have a long history. It's just that for the first 100 years, they weren't called bloggers. Go into any pub, preferably at lunchtime and preferably on your own, and sit very quietly. You pretend to read your paper but instead you listen: very attentively. And what you will hear is blogging.

Almost everyone you eavesdrop on feels hard done-by, taken for granted, victimised, over-exploited and under-recognised. Without exception, their senior colleagues abuse their position, take the credit, blame their underlings, have first pick at any corporate perks, favour the fanciable and are smarmy with management. One relentless complainant I overheard, inflated to bursting point with righteous indignation, reached his crescendo like this: "It's one thing when things is going all right, there's his nibs to take the credit, oh yes! But when things go bad, it's a different matter, I can tell you. Suddenly his nibs is nowhere to be seen - and who's the scopegate?"

Most bloggers see themselves as victims - scopegates, even. What the bloggersphere has done is give each of the resentful millions a radio station of their own - and an infinitely wider audience than they ever found in their local. Furthermore, in their local, they were known for who they were. In the bloggersphere, anonymity offers the cowardly the appearance of courage.

So what bloggers are saying about our trade is in no way different from what saloon bar bores have been saying about it for about 100 years; but with just one difference. I've never been captivated or enlightened by a saloon bar bore; whereas one in a thousand bloggers says something amazingly perceptive and of lasting value. They take a bit of finding, though.

Q: My PR agency has sent me a bunch of press cuttings with a value attached. When I asked how they worked this out they said they rated editorial space devoted to my company at three times the equivalent advertising space. Do you agree? And what if the editorial coverage is negative?

A: There are 17 absurd assumptions for which your PR agency deserves to be mocked but I shall mention only three.

Assumption 1: One press cutting about your company is three times more valuable than the equivalent advertising space.

How do they put a value on the advertising space? Surely not based on its price? The cost of a print ad remains just that, a cost, until somebody's supplied it with words and pictures - after which it may or may not have a beneficial effect. If it's a direct marketing ad, that effect may be fairly accurately valued but most print ads can't be. Some ads, highly expensive in space cost, are so incompetent creatively that they divert significant numbers of hitherto loyal users to competitive products. These ads therefore have a negative value. Is your PR company saying that their press cuttings may be three times more counterproductive even than paid-for advertising? An unusual boast.

Assumption 2: All publicity is good publicity. I wonder if your PR company was also employed by Enron, Northern Rock and Gerald Ratner? And I wonder if they charged those clients for their press cuttings on the basis of advertising column inches multiplied by three? If so, I do hope they got their invoices cleared before the administrators moved in.

Assumption 3: Praise for a product when clearly seen to be self-generated - ie. in a paid-for ad - is three times less credible than praise for a product that appears to be objective even though it isn't.

This assumption, by definition, puts a high value on deceit. If the PR company has been responsible for the favourable press mention, the praise is just as contrived and as self-generated as if it would have been had it been contained in an ad; it's just that this material fact, a fact that if known would have reduced the value of the cutting by a factor of three, has been deliberately kept from the consuming public. Alternatively, if the PR company wasn't responsible for the favourable press mention (and only they will know if they were), do they automatically waive their fee?

The real absurdity of all this, of course, is the touching attempt of a discipline that has absolutely no idea how to measure its worth or charge for its services desperately trying to borrow a little respectability from another discipline - which just happens to have been floundering with exactly the same problem but for a great deal longer.

- "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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