Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: I'm the marketing director of a leading toy company and our sales were down badly in the pre-Christmas period. My CEO is on a witch-hunt and is blaming me, my team, and our various agencies for this, but could it just be that 'pester power' declines during a recession?

A: All purchase decisions, at all times, are the outcome of battles between those in favour and those against. In times of irrational exuberance and easy credit, the prevailing mood greatly favours those in favour. Those against are steamrollered into acquiescence and left muttering resentfully under their breath. These are the people who pray nightly for the next recession and welcome its arrival with ill-concealed glee. So, no: it's not that pester power declines; it's that stiff resistance to pester power is a great deal easier to muster. "No you can't, Simeon! Don't you know there's a recession on? Now shut up and have a glass of tap water!"

Q: Why is it that recessions seem to be good for agency start-ups?

A: You are the marketing director of a leading toy company. Your sales were down badly in the pre-Christmas period. Your CEO is on a witch-hunt and is blaming you, your team and your various agencies. You're inclined to blame your various agencies, consumers, the economy, the retail trade, the weather, your own team and yourself - strictly in that order. So when two other agencies ask for half-an-hour of your time, you agree to see them.

The first is a top ten agency that's been in the top ten since records began. They have many big, blue-chip clients and their work is consistently workmanlike. They've helped their clients through four previous recessions and have IPA Effectiveness Awards to prove it. You are impressed.

The second is an agency start-up. The three principals are all present. They finish each others' sentences and are infectiously enthusiastic. All come from established agencies from which they've fled: frustrated, they say, by cumbersome working procedures and their blind belief in the universal appropriateness of network TV. The only work they show is a viral campaign they developed for a firm of turf accountants. It cost £652.75 and doubled their business in three weeks. You are bowled over.

That's why recessions tend to be good for agency start-ups. Clients begin questioning all accepted practices. Overdue work irritates excessively. That comfortable working relationship suddenly smacks of complacency: "They're taking us for granted!" Fees are challenged. Then along comes the start-up, nimble as anything on its feet, working out of a Portakabin in SE25, with the lowest of overheads and levels of commitment that only second mortgages inspire. And to begin with, of course, they've got all the time in the world for you.

So by firing your agency and taking on a start-up, you'll get your CEO off your back. At least for a few months.

Q: Was there a rule which said that the majority of TV ads should be 30 seconds long, and if not, why did it end up that way in so many countries?

A: The first commercial I wrote, in 1954, was a masterpiece of compression and timed out at just over three minutes. My only previous work for a broadcast medium had been a 60-minute radio play - and that, too, had demanded fierce discipline and little miracles of economy. Early requests to get an involving storyline and a compelling sales pitch into 60 seconds were laughed out of court.

In fairness, you need to remember that the only existing models we had to follow were leisurely UK cinema commercials and TV commercials from the US, which were still of the "And now a word from our sponsor" school. Spot television had yet to dominate.

My own favourite was the 45-second: a lovely length that granted you the time to be polite while still demanding the precision of a cabinet-maker.

There was never a rule. Both audiences and commercial makers swiftly learnt the art of compression. An early commercial would establish the exterior of a house, man coming through gate; cut to interior of house, woman in kitchen at stove; cut back to exterior, man at door, finger on bell; cut back to interior as bell is heard, woman lifts head; cut back to exterior as man waits; door opens and we see woman from man's POV. Soon we were doing that in two shots and half the time; and viewers got it perfectly.

So the 30-second settled down as the standard; the length that best suited programme makers, time-buyers and creatives.

Q: Someone told me that over the period when JWT had the Rowntrees account, there were 58 client marketing directors, but only five agency directors in charge. Is this true?

A: No.

- Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP

Topics