Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: For the past few years, I've agreed an annual scope of work with my main creative agency and their remuneration to deliver it.

So far so good, but when they present the new work for my brand, it's essentially tactical in nature with no obvious linkage to last year's executions. When I ask if we need a brand spokesperson, a cartoon character, a mnemonic device, a jingle or a slogan, the agency recommends against it saying there is a campaign theme based on a consistent brand attitude and tone of voice. They also tell me that in today's battle for attention, people get bored quickly and that novel executions are better at engaging them than something they've sort of seen before. This all seems plausible, but I still have my doubts - am I worrying needlessly?

A: You're right to worry. Soon, you'll have to do something - such as compelling your agency to know their own subject.

Fifty-five years ago, the Harvard Business Review published a paper by Burleigh B Gardner and Sidney J Levy. Far too many papers are called seminal but this one was. If an understanding of the nature of brands and the contribution that advertising can make to them can be traced to one definitive source, this is it. It inspired David Ogilvy and dramatically modified his views about his chosen trade. It gave scholarly if retrospective legitimacy to practitioners who until then were operating entirely on hunch. It changed the face of advertising everywhere and was called The Product And The Brand.

"Too many ads are built as individual units, with a conglomeration of elements to satisfy different agency and client tastes rather than with reference to a guiding, governing product and brand personality that is unified and coherently meaningful ...

"A single campaign is not the manufacturers' only salesman, and he usually intends to remain in business for many following years. From this point of view, it is more profitable to think of an advertisement as a contribution to the complex symbol which is the brand image - as part of the long-term investment in the reputation of the brand." (My emphasis.)

All this is now more or less universally agreed. But what tends to get forgotten is that, if every ad is to make a small but cumulative contribution to a brand's reputation, all those ads need somewhere to go; somewhere to be stored. The despised packshot does it wonderfully well; and so can all the other devices you mention: a brand spokesperson, a cartoon character, a mnemonic device, a jingle or a slogan. But in the absence of any constant receptacle - which, in essence, is all these devices are - all these expensive ads, however true to the brand, will have nowhere to roost. Their value will be transitory, their potential value halved.

Because people have forgotten - or never understood - the critical function they perform, most of these devices have become the victims of whim. I don't mind a bit if those at the cutting-edge of creativity first despise and then dispose of the packshot, the jingle, the slogan, the cartoon character and the brand spokesperson. But unless they invent an alternative, and one that serves this all-important purpose equally well, they'll be dividing their clients' budgets by two.

For a master-class in what I'm talking about, examine every campaign devised by John Webster. With the proliferation of media and channels and platforms and jargon, his brand simplicity - the certainty of long-term investment that his work delivered - has never been more needed.

Q: I've finally committed to a start-up with three other colleagues and we're beginning to think of a name for our new agency. Do we try and be funny/clever/random, or should we just simply stick the surnames together like everyone else?

A: Funny/clever names may give you a few weeks' publicity. After that, all names come to mean what behaviour imbues them with.

If you believe that the best names can be immediately, permanently and positively evocative, you'd have to believe that naked initials and numbers would be permanently devoid of distinctive personality. Then think of 5th Avenue, XK 150, AK-47, No. 5, Channel 4, O2, 747, FBI - and you'll realise they're not. All names, even initially empty names, quickly absorb the connotations and characteristics of what they are. So it really doesn't matter very much.

If your art director's called Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorff and your finance man MacGhilleseatheanaich, then you might want to plump for a made-up name. Otherwise, just get on with being very good at what you do: and everyone will say what an excellent name you chose.

- "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.