Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: There's a roof terrace on our building and some of the staff have started popping up there to sunbathe during their lunch break.

Now I've had a complaint that a new employee has started going topless and is upsetting the others. I wanted to go up there to check out the situation and have a quiet word but my HR manager has advised not to since it's not against the law in the UK and I could get taken to an industrial tribunal for sexual harassment, or discrimination on grounds of gender and race, or all three. Would it be best just to close the roof on health and safety grounds?

A: Campaign readers love league tables and so, therefore, does Campaign.

Your letter has not only prompted me to think of a new one - the Top Ten Most Boring Advertising Agencies - but has also propelled your good self into pole position. If clients, potential clients, employees and potential employees knew who you were, and had only your letter to go on, they'd desert you in droves. Let us dissect the evidence.

We're in a recession. Never have agility, wit, inventiveness, scorn for convention, dedication to clients and a merciless appreciation of priorities been more necessary for survival. So what do you do? You crease your brow about one new employee going taking her top off, thus incurring a complaint from another employee.

Now - which of those two employees most epitomise the kind of agency that clients want work with and people want to work for? And which did you choose to champion?

You should have turfed out the complainant, opened up the roof to allcomers including clients, summoned the trade press photographers, retired your HR manager (quite a little saving there, I imagine) and got back to making your company fun again.

Q: Dear Jeremy, do you think newspapers will ever be able to charge for content online, now that we've all got used to it being free?

A: You might as well ask: How will the world survive when fossil fuels are finally exhausted? Or: What totally unpredicted invention will turn out to be the next internet? Or: How can I make £10 million before I'm 30 without risk or effort?

I don't know the answer to your question and neither does Rupert Murdoch and neither does anyone else. When trying to make sense of it all, there's only one guideline that I know of - and that's scarcity value.

People will be prepared to pay other people for things only if two driving factors coincide. First, they want them (ideally, need them). And second, they can't get them anywhere else for less.

Just as an understanding of natural economics can best be grasped by a study of the black economy, so price elasticity can best be understood by a study of crime. Once desirable things have been made illegal, scarcity value comes swinging into action. Whether you enjoy a social spliff or two or are terminally addicted, you'll pay up. You want/need; and nobody's going to bung it to you for nothing. People still pay good money to go to cockfights. Prohibition (The Noble Experiment) was a disaster. It kept the price of liquor up and the quality of liquor down for 14 years. But people wanted it and there was nowhere else to go. And where would the internet have found its fortune had it not been for pornography?

Insider trading is illegal. Inside information confers an unfair advantage on those who possess it. That's exactly why people want it. And that's exactly why The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times are more likely to be able to charge for their online content than the Daily Express. Gossip is inside information, too. Like trading news, to be valued, it has to be fresh and severely restricted in circulation. If the gossip borders on the libellous, so much the better: that will limit its circulation. People will pay for that. Like all forms of news, when universally accessible gossip loses its value.

So if I were a newspaper trying to charge for my online content, I'd concentrate entirely on stuff that people wanted and couldn't get anywhere else. I'd hire the best gossip columnist and make him more famous than Nigel Dempster. I'd hire Warren Buffett to do a blog. I'd put my crossword online. I'd have the best Inside Westminster Team in the country. I'd find the next Tom Wolfe. And I'd infuriate the regular readers of my print-on-paper paper by running the opposite of trailers: rather than telling them what was up and coming, I'd tease them daily with little half-hints of what they'd just missed.

And I don't suppose for a moment that that would work either.

- "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.