Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Dear Jeremy, I've just learned that political advertising doesn't come under the jurisdiction of the Advertising Standards Authority. Isn't this a bit rich given the endless attempts by politicians to ban or severely restrict other people's advertising?

A: I bet the Advertising Standards Authority is absolutely delighted that political advertising doesn't come under its jurisdiction. I bet it'd lobby at its ferocious best to fend off any suggestion that it might.

It's not, of course, acceptable to say so - but much of the work of consumer protection is undertaken not to protect consumers but to prevent well-intentioned but humourless factions from imposing cumbersome and counterproductive alternatives. The ASA is a magnificent example of just such a function. The best forms of consumer protection protect consumers not just from evil producers but from worse forms of consumer protection.

We voters do not need to be protected from misleading political advertising, thank you very much. As I have pointed out on more than one occasion, any advertisement that is clearly misleading clearly doesn't mislead. When politicians and political parties consistently lie, their opponents - and those magnificent men and women from the media - will joyfully bring it to our attention. What a good system.

Q: Dear Jeremy, I have always harboured an ambition to start my own agency. I think I may be facing redundancy in the next few months and should come in for a substantial pay-out as I've been with this company for a good length of time. I'm tempted to use the opportunity to do what I've never been brave enough to do before and start my own business, but am concerned that the economic climate would make this a reckless decision. I have a family to support. What do you advise?

A: Forget about the economic climate. This could be a reckless decision even in the middle of the boomiest boom in living memory. For someone seriously considering selling marketing advice to real clients, your starting point is just about as gormless as it's possible to get. Have you never heard the phrase consumer-orientation?

What would you say to a potential client who came to see you and said: "I've always harboured an ambition to launch a new product. I might have some redundancy money available. What do you advise?"

I think you'd say: "Before I advise you to do anything, here a few questions. Do you have an idea for this product? Do you have reason to believe that there could be a demand for this product? Is the market you plan to enter under-supplied or over-supplied?" And you'd think these questions so self-evidently basic that you'd wonder at the naivety of the client who'd come to see you. Yet you've clearly asked none of these questions of yourself.

I'm not expecting you to have identified a USP for your putative agency. One of the millions of ironies and inconsistencies in the agency business is that, despite half a century believing that the brands they handled needed to identify and promote some Unique Selling Proposition, no agency itself has ever permanently possessed one. That's not because agencies have failed to find them; it's because there aren't any. When discriminating between agencies, their consumers (clients) are as subjective, irrational and as lost for words as the consumers of beer or baked beans. They know the good ones from the bad ones, all right. They just can't tell you why or how. Agencies are either good or bad at being agencies. After that, it's all a question of brand personality, really ... And they're right.

So before you fritter away your pitiful redundancy money, and consign yourself and your family to a long future of job centres and charity shops, please do a little fundamental planning.

The market you want to enter is already absurdly over-supplied. The smallest hint of an account up for grabs attracts the grovelling attention of at least 30 established agencies, pleading to be allowed to serve if only for the honour of it.

So just what is it about you - and your partners and your record and your reputation - that might prompt a serious advertiser to risk serious company money by deciding to appoint you? It's an unusual guinea pig that volunteers to pay for the privilege of being the subject of an untried experiment.

Lots of people have done it before you, of course, and some have succeeded wonderfully well. Irrespective of the economic climate, you could well deserve to join them. But wanting to sell something is never enough. Other people have to want to buy.

- "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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