Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: I work at an agency that has a client in a low-interest category recently enlivened by a rival advertiser using a cute talking animal to sell its service. Should we react by inventing a rival talking animal or just give up and resign the business?

A: I'm afraid I shall have to be stern with you; just as the remarkable Stanley Resor was stern with me 51 years ago. (I've told you this story before, but you've clearly failed to take it in.) Mr Resor (as he was invariably known) ran the J Walter Thompson Company from 1916 until 1961. During that time, it became the largest and most respected advertising agency ("The University of Advertising") in the world.

On my first visit to New York, in 1958, I was granted an hour-long interview with this distinguished man, in the course of which he told me the parable of the dime and the street lamp.

After dark, a man encounters another man on a sidewalk in Manhattan. The man on the sidewalk is on his hands-and-knees, beneath a street lamp. The passer-by stops and courteously asks if the man may have lost something? Yes, the man says, I've dropped a dime. So the passer-by joins in the search but to no avail. "You're sure," he says, "that you dropped it here?" "Oh dear me no," the man says, "I dropped it over there." "Then why," the passer-by asks, in some exasperation, "are you looking here?" Says the man on his hands-and-knees, clearly impatient because stating the obvious: "Because the light's better here!"

And because I was young and a foreigner, Mr Resor very kindly went on to interpret this parable for me. Not all products, however worthwhile, were of obvious intrinsic interest. This prompted certain inferior advertising agents either to produce low-interest advertising; or worse, to produce entertaining advertising that was totally irrelevant. They ignored the dime and went to where the light was.

By contrast, Mr Resor said, it was the solemn duty of the professional agency to bring the light to the dime: to illuminate the apparently mundane and make it of interest. That is what clients expected of their agents and why the business of advertising was both so difficult and so rewarding.

He hoped I would remember this story. And I did. But you haven't.

You meekly accepted that this category was a low-interest category and meekly delivered low-interest advertising. Now you're upset because a rival agency has done what you so wretchedly failed to do; they brought light to your client's competitor with spectacular results.

But you still haven't learnt the right lesson. To resign would be abject. To introduce a competitive talking animal would be to guarantee derision. There are many ways to bring light to a dime; every dime needs its own light; and that's precisely what you're paid to find. So stop whinging and find it.

Q: I made the mistake of telling my agency staff that my door is always open. Well it is now because some joker has unscrewed it from its hinges and made off with it. All my appeals for its return have fallen on deaf ears. I'm really angry, but worried that I'll just be seen as a figure of fun if I keep going on about it. Should I just smile through gritted teeth and make our place fully open-plan?

A: I'm sorry to say this, but you're a figure of fun already. Respect is a fragile property. Grand titles never in themselves confer it; they just give you a chance to earn it. You haven't.

If you'd earned your agency's respect, nobody would have made off with your door in the first place; it wouldn't have been witty. Going on about it will dig you even deeper. It may be too late, but try shutting up and doing something remarkable.

Q: We're a small creative agency that's desperate to get a profile. We've come up with a great television commercial for our local curry house. Our plan is to run once it in the early hours on some obscure satellite channel, then put it up for a few big-name awards in the hope of attracting some proper business. Do you think there's anything wrong with doing this? After all, it isn't quite a scam.

A: Feel free: it's entirely legitimate. And quite soon you'll widely be known as the small struggling agency that was so desperate to get a profile that it made a commercial for their local curry house and ran it once on some obscure satellite channel in the touching hope of winning a Cannes Lion.

With one swift stroke, you'll have confirmed to the world exactly why you're a small struggling agency.

- "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.